Film Review: A Necessary Death

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By now we've seen so many mock documentaries that it's tempting to suspect there are no more variations to be wrung on the specialized genre. But director Daniel Stamm has come up with a novel concept for "A Necessary Death," which won the audience award at the 2008 AFI Fest. This story about a film student who decides to find a person willing to commit suicide on camera is so shrewdly engineered and expertly crafted that it seems, at first, authentic.

At one early festival showing in Europe, the audience was ready to lynch Stamm for failing to save the life of his subject. In truth this film is a critique of the extremes of media voyeurism, rather than an exploitation picture. Because the cast comprises unknown actors, it represents a challenge for distributors. But "Death" is a genuine conversation piece that will mesmerize those who see it.

At the start, Gilbert (Gilbert John) explains that he has been fascinated by suicide since his grandfather killed himself. He enlists a few friends to work on his thesis film, and they interview a series of suicidal people who answer their advertisement. They decide, though, that the only one they feel comfortable filming is Matt (Matt Tilley), a terminally ill young man with a brain tumor; because he is doomed to die anyway, they feel they can justify their morbid exercise.

Nonetheless, as the filmmakers become more attached to Matt, they find it harder to continue. Then an Austin TV station expresses interest in airing the project, and their moral qualms subside for a while. But there are many more twists and turns in this ingeniously plotted piece as Matt develops romantic feelings for Gilbert's ex-girlfriend and conflicts escalate.

One reason "Death" is so unsettling is that it is superbly acted. John captures the single-minded, sometimes infuriating intensity of a determined film nerd. Tilley is enormously engaging. Konima Parkinson-Jones as Matt's black stepsister voices the pertinent moral issues with passion and eloquence. Stamm plays a crew member who rarely appears on camera; he's the director as invisible, manipulative puppeteer.

The hand-held camerawork is, for once, appropriate to the subject, and though "Death" clearly was made on a tiny budget, the quality of the acting and writing makes its technical limitations disappear. The film begins with sardonic humor but builds tremendous tension, and by the time a gunshot rings out during the final scene, viewers will be transfixed and deeply chastened.

Venue: AFI Fest
Production: Brickwall Prods
Cast: Gilbert John, Matt Tilley, Valerie Hurt, Michael Traynor, Konima Parkinson-Jones
Director-screenwriter: Daniel Stamm
Producers: Brian Udovich, G.J. Echternkamp
Director of photography: Zoltan Honti
Music: Morgan Kibby, Jonathan Leahy
Editors: Shilpa Khanna, David Kashevaroff
No MPAA rating, 98 minutes