Go Down Death: Film Review

Affectations trump substance in self-conscious art film.

Aaron Schimberg's debut is a Guy Maddin-imitating experiment with pretension to spare.

MONTREAL — A difficult-to-watch experimental feature that revels in obscurity to the point of abandoning ship near the end and transforming into an entirely different movie, Aaron Schimberg's Go Down Death is the kind of film one suspects admirers choose to like as a dare: "What do you mean, you don't get it? Go back to your Masterpiece Theater, old man." Though some daring indie exhibitors may give it a chance, comparisons to debuts like Eraserhead and Tales from the Gimli Hospital are way, way off the mark; any commercial value probably depends on Schimberg making more compelling work down the road, thus creating a home-video audience for this opening salvo.

The Guy Maddin comparison is a natural one in many ways, as Death has superficial similarities: Grainy black-and-white (film) cinematography, bad-splice edits and intentionally stilted acting all are modeled on his aesthetic. There are even amputees and an accordion. But this film neither really embraces the mechanics of primitive cinema nor creates a coherent syntax of its own. Though Jimmy Lee Phelan's photography appeals, and the design elements cohere in a "we've turned an empty warehouse into a WWI-era netherworld" sort of way, the direction itself lacks the distinctive sensibility that make even Maddin's most challenging efforts impossible to ignore.

Opening titles citing a fictitious folklorist as inspiration are misleading, as the narrative impulse (folk tale-based or otherwise) is almost entirely lacking here. Rather than a story or sense of place, the film offers a collection of vignettes whose stagey monologues have little to do with each other; their strongest connection is the sound of artillery in the distance and characters' propensity for desolate, off-key singing. Men sit in bedrooms talking to whores, taunt each other at the poker table, and patrol the woods for an unidentified army; two actors reminisce about a very tender mutton chop they could've sworn was actually pork.

Soon after an apparent snakeoil salesman gets beat up by a man in a gorilla suit, the movie decides it's had enough: Suddenly we're in a contemporary urban apartment, where a few couples engage in dinner-party talk that fairly screams "we live in Brooklyn." The conversation is mercifully brief, but it's almost dull enough to make a viewer wish Schimberg would cut back to the kid singing about his horse named Boredom and a cow called Mediocrity.

Production Company: Post-Original Productions

Cast: Doug Barron, Rayvin Disla, Lucy Kaminsky, Sammy Mena, Bryant Pappas

Director-Screenwriter: Aaron Schimberg

Producer: Vanessa McDonnell

Director of photography: Jimmy Lee Phelan

Production designers: Sia Balabanova, Kate Rance

Music: Aaron Schimberg, Quentin Tolimieri

Costume designers: Stacey Berman, Kara Feely

Editor: Vanessa McDonnell

No rating, 88 minutes