There he is, the Central Casting TV host with the plastic smile and all the world’s earnestness, announcing that the season’s strong-jawed Adonis has chosen which of the women competing for his affection in a Bachelor-like dating show will win the honor of his proposal.
This time, though, the runner-up doesn’t just weep into her jewel-toned dress as a limo rushes her away from the TV set. No, she calls bullshit. She is scorned.
She pulls out a gun and kills the man who has refused her. Then, as the aforementioned host tries to reason with her, she turns the gun on herself and ends her own life, as white wine-soaked viewing parties across the world stare stone-faced in shock at their TV sets.
Thus begins the first truly f**ked up, what-did-I-just-watch movie of 2017’s SXSW Film Festival and, as This Is Your Death might have us believe, our own depraved future—one that is most certainly of our own making.
Playing like a Black Mirror episode with no editor and no real conscience, This Is Your Death, which was directed by Breaking Bad’s Giancarlo Esposito, who also co-stars, is a cinematic think piece that guilts us over our own complicity in becoming depraved, spectacle-craven reality TV addicts.
Would you actually watch death as a reality TV show, the film asks? Perhaps already knowing the answer based on our infatuation with the Hunger Games franchise, it then complicates matters further. Would you watch suicide? More, would you reward it?
This Is Your Death is tricky. It’s moralizing and sometimes even finger-wagging, shaming us for becoming bloodthirsty reality-TV drones. Emotional massacre is no longer enough for us. Only actual death will satiate.
The film, for all its philosophizing, is also as grotesquely graphic as the fictional death-obsessed reality series it fantasizes.
It is repugnant, so violent and realistic in its depiction of desperate people committing suicide that, as you become clued into the pattern of how they are shown in the film, you start shielding your face from the screen.
By the film’s grand finale suicide, which it builds up to with all the pomp and circumstance of the reality genre it aims to satirize, you’re too nauseated to watch at all.
What’s unclear—and maybe for better or worse this is the point—is whether the severity of your repulsion is the point of the film’s provocation: how soon into the future will we let this kind of televised bloodsport not be just an allegorical warning shot, but an actual ratings event?
To that end, This Is Your Death kicks up its intended controversy. It couldn’t be more relevant. Star Josh Duhamel, in a post-screening Q&A, argued that reality television fostering a presidency only hints at the no-bounds potential for how the genre will impact our society.
It’s equally riveting as it is revolting. It reveals how our media culture exploits humanity, but with such lack of nuance that the “we’re dangerously close to this actually becoming real” message blends into heavy-handed “look what you degenerates have done” melodrama.
The gruesome murder-suicide on the set of the fictional Married to a Millionaire dating show, a clear spoof of The Bachelor, is played with shocking plaintiveness and matter-of-factness—the opening salvo in the film’s straightforward, almost detached cinematic approach to its onslaught of violent deaths.
Each one is as bleak, as realistic, and as upsetting as the previous, but by the end so predictable that you barely have patience for one more beautifully shot suicide. (Again, given the premise that may be the point.)
The show’s shell-shocked host, Adam Rogers (Josh Duhamel) is a reality TV veteran for whom murder-suicide is the last straw in a vapid career. In an interview with a morning talk show host (James Franco in a delirious cameo), he goes on a tirade about how the genre is ruining television and, more importantly, destroying human empathy and culture as we know it.
“That is the most reality that reality TV has ever shown,” he says. “And I hope we see more of it.” Though the film resists, you can practically hear the ominous dunh dunh dunh in your head.
Rather than fire Adam, the network’s head of programming, Ilana (Famke Janssen), uses loopholes in his contract to force him and, through similar means, ace producer Sylvia (Caitlin Fitzgerald) to capitalize on the ratings gold that both the violent episode and Rogers’s post-mortem meltdown provided.
Legally, Ilana learns that California allows a person to commit suicide as long as doctors and psychiatrists vouch that the person is committing the act on their own volition. What if instead of relying on emotionally unstable dating-show contestants to have breakdowns, down-and-out everyday Americans are given the outlet to do it on their terms...on TV?
Rogers only agrees when he is given creative control over what he sees as a greater mission: allowing these suicidal participants to use their deaths for good. A domestic abuse victim’s mother kills herself, but the viewing audience can text donations for her daughter, so that she can live a better life. The world’s most morbid charity.
What develops, though, is exactly what you would expect, which is the film’s greatest flaw.
Of course audiences transform from empathetic donors into WWE-style, bloodthirsty heathens, whose appetite for the next great suicide leads to an arms race for how to stage the next shocking death.
And Rogers, whose motive was arguably altruistic at the start, becomes enslaved to the money and fame that comes with each event-style suicide, exposing the moral recklessness that taunts and baits every reality TV producer—whether it’s disregard for dignity in a dating show, or the repercussions of ending a life in This Is Your Death.
It’s a very hall-of-mirrors viewing experience.
You watch the film with keen awareness of its intent to shame the personalities and viewing behaviors of a certain kind of viewing public that could one day lead to a This Is Your Death-style series. And yet the film also shows you, with no polite cutaways or suggestion, the very suicides it is fictionalizing with excruciating reality. Yet, despite their graphic nature, you sit there and watch.
The film is exceptionally problematic.
It is on-the-nose in a way that is patronizing, and also shows a deep lack of understanding of suicide and depression. It might be easy to accept that a person can be wooed by enough money to say, “Sure, I’ll kill myself on TV for the benefit of my family,” but it shouldn’t take a Daily Beast entertainment reporter spelling it out for an audience to understand that the issues are much deeper and much more complicated than that.
But for all that implausibility, there’s the suspicion that audiences today really would gravitate towards the kinds of snuff This Is Your Death sells, even if its premise for selling it is faulty. The underbelly of the internet, which hosts videos of real-life violent deaths, is more trafficked than we’d like to think. Would we really resist when what is sought out in those shadows is actually brought into the light?
One won’t leave This Is Your Death without a lot to ponder. And perhaps some disgust and a bit of anger at having sit through such vile, pornographic treatments of death. The allegory is there. It’s the over-simplification that makes you wonder if enduring the imagery was worth it.
And that again, might be the point. If not this, then what? What would be worth it?