After a traumatic encounter forces a reality TV host to confront his own mortality, an exciting new game show is conceived in which contestants commit suicide, live on national television. Working from a concept that requires a certain suspension of disbelief, second-time director, Giancarlo Esposito, manages to avoid gimmick territory by wrangling incredibly powerful performances from his cast, lending some depth to the otherwise haphazard and tonally insensitive script.
While hosting the finale of “Married to a Millionaire”, A Bachelor-type show that pits desperate women against each other with the promise of a husband at the end of it, slick TV personality Adam Rogers (Josh Duhamel) narrowly avoids being shot when a jilted runner-up storms the set with a loaded gun. Struck by the senselessness of death, he approaches network head Ilana Katz (Famke Janssen), and together they conceive of a new show in which suicidal contestants are given the chance to die with meaning – usually resulting in a cash prize being awarded to their loved ones. Given that this endeavour is dubious at best, Adam receives a fair amount of criticism for his role in it, most notably from his sister, Karina (Sarah Wayne Callies).
On the other side of the coin, offering a stark comparison to the morally bankrupt executives who prey on the unfortunate, is Mason Washington (Esposito himself), a man who wants nothing more than to work an honest day and provide for his family. In a chance encounter with Adam, Mason makes the mistake of voicing his more than reasonable concerns regarding the televised euthanasia, sparking a domino effect that sends his already difficult life into chaos. As the network rakes in more money than they know what to do with, Mason sees bills and pink slips pile up, growing ever more desperate as his place in the world seems to slip away from him.
Subtle as it is, the film’s commentary on the cult-like nature of reality TV is one of its strongest elements.
Working with such heavy subject matter, it was inevitable that the film would be riddled with dramatic moments and tearful monologues, and it doesn’t disappoint. While the main cast get plenty to chew on, the majority of the emotional substance in the first two acts comes from the contestants and their sob stories; mirroring reality shows like “The Voice” and “X Factor”. It would have been very easy for these scenes to come across as gratuitous – especially since the film never quite knows if it’s being serious with its concept or satirising the idea of it – but these scenes manage to keep things tasteful with a focus on character and performance.
Janssen works with the little she is given, embodying the cold, unfeeling attitude of money-driven networks, but never really getting much room to expand beyond that. Duhamel is charming and confident for the most part, with enough emotional depth to the character for him to showcase his range without it feeling forced. With these two leading the charge on this objectionable venture, the parallels between Rogers and similarly charismatic cult leaders like Jim Jones and Charles Manson start to shine through. Subtle as it is, this commentary on the cult-like nature of reality TV is one of the films strongest elements; excellently capturing the religious undertones and implied complicity of the relationship between studio and viewer.
Running opposite the meteoric rise of the hit show, Mason’s story follows a steady decline that, while sympathetic and demonstrative of the struggle of uneducated, working-class men trying to find work in the information age, doesn’t fully ramp up to its emotional poignancy until the third act hits. And then it rolls in like a thunderstorm. Once again anchored by Esposito’s raw and desperate performance, this escalation feels like a logical move, and fits nicely into the film’s emotional climax. Having spent most of the film reacting to her brother, Karina finally gets to see some emotional depth alongside Mason. This development gives Wayne Callies plenty of opportunity to show off her own considerable talents, including a beautiful scene shared with Esposito in which both performers seem to feed off the other’s energy, heightening the pathos to near-palpable levels.
The ease with which Rogers’ conviction is cast aside makes it very difficult to relate to his ongoing struggles.
While the strong emotional core definitely holds the film together through it’s shakier scenes, it’s difficult to really get behind the arc of Adam Rogers, simply because he is an unsure protagonist whose motivation seems to change to satisfy the needs of the plot. After witnessing the senseless deaths of two contestants in the opening minutes, Rogers goes through a believable, extremely relatable course of grief, including a deep depression and PTSD flashbacks. Eventually, this culminates in a tv interview with a morning show host (James Franco with his best glued on grin), in which Rogers snaps and calls out the network for putting these people through such emotional turmoil, directly blaming them for the deaths.
This extremely promising opening sequence indicates that the following content would see Rogers either fight against the reality TV regime, or be convincingly turned to the side with either desperate circumstances or an inciting personal incident. Unfortunately, all it seems he needed was a conversation with network exec Ilana Katz to come to the realisation that so many people die for nothing, and the only logical counter is to make a show wherein they can still kill themselves, but at least the audience and the network will donate money to the family and friends they leave behind. The ease with which Rogers’ conviction is cast aside makes it very difficult to relate to his ongoing struggles, as they just feel like the consequences of an incredibly illogical and selfish decision.
Although it is intended as a satirization of the troubling attitude that modern society has to seeing the suffering of others, the depictions of suicide (of which there are many as the show gathers steam and continues to up the stakes) feel like a missed opportunity. Each of the contestants, from the woman who’s husband molested their daughter to the gymnast who is slowly becoming trapped in his own body by ALS, feel as though there is nowhere else to turn – as do the thousands of real people who end their own lives every year – and sending the message that suicide is a logical conclusion to these struggles is irresponsible, and insensitive to viewers who may be battling similar demons. Taking the time to champion suicide prevention would have ultimately reinforced the core criticisms that the film is making, as well as adhering better to the Samaritans guidelines for portraying suicide.
Despite it’s flawed representation of a sensitive issue, THIS IS YOUR DEATH excels in its presentation of real suffering; with everyone from the main cast to the contestants performing perfectly to wring as much dramatic tension out of each scene as possible. To Esposito’s credit, the suicide scenes become increasingly difficult to watch, not due to the contestants being developed into characters that the viewer wouldn’t want to lose, but because of the sheer devastation of each human being who steps on stage to take their last breath. As an advocate for suicide prevention, the film leaves a lot to be desired, as a drama, however, it leaves the audience begging for more.
Verdict: 4/5 Paddles