”Recovered Footage” movies — ones shot with consumer-grade cameras made to look like home movies, films like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity — can’t rely on lots of CGI or fancy special effects and still stay true to the look of the film. The world feels more real, more personal, less scripted, like it could happen to you. With less glitz to distract you, the actors’ performances have to be their best. If there are holes in the writing or dialogue, they quickly become apparent and distracting; worse yet, if it starts to feel deliberately plotted or scripted, disbelief becomes much harder to suspend. I enjoy this sort of movie for it’s broad appeal and closeness to home. I want to suspend my disbelief and get spooked or emotive.
A Necessary Death is a recent foray into the “recovered footage” sub-genre of psychological dramas, a making-of of a documentary. It seeks to tackle taboo subjects and find a way to do it that feels honest without offending the audience. Film student Gilbert (G.J. Echternkamp) chooses for his thesis to make a documentary following a person with suicidal intentions from present day through their descent all the way to the final act. As with the other movies mentioned above, the main characters end up getting more trouble than they bargained for, but instead of demons and witches haunting the life out of the cast, as they grow closer with their suicidal subject, a few semi-predictable twists arise, but add gravity and emotional strain to the situation, which is something all of us can relate to.
Gilbert’s first struggle is with getting approval to do the project. The L.A. Conservatory agrees to allow him to submit his film for credit to graduate, but won’t finance it based on the subject matter. He convinces his family to put what they have on the line to get the funding needed, only to have the Conservatory pull out entirely and say if he doesn’t abandon the project and choose something more mainstream, he won’t graduate. All the while, he’s interviewing subjects and trying to narrow it down. How does one choose whom they want to watch die? What other issues come along with this, legal, familial, or otherwise? Is he required to intervene with someone about to end their life? The film tackles all these sorts of issues and more. The religion angle on suicide is only covered in a deleted scene, but it went about as well as you’d expect when you pose these sorts of questions to a priest.
Gilbert gets a few breaks along the way, gains a sponsor, lands the crew he wants, and selects his subject. Now, how well do you want to get to know someone you know is aiming to kill themselves? What happens when people start thinking you’re capitalizing on the misery of others? Again, the film delves into these issues head first and tackles them in ways that feel brutally honest, the way you and your friends might hash it out.
While watching some of the other deleted scenes, a finer point is put on something hinted at during the proper storyline — their subject seems awfully withdrawn and has no real friends. His memories, stories, adventures from earlier life…all of them lack impact (stealing a neighbor’s milk is a “dark secret”?), like they’re either being embellished (hitting a bicyclist with a car) to try to look interesting for the camera, or they’re made up entirely and the person has no real life to speak of. This is where things started to get a little loose and disbelief started to sag a bit; granted, some of these scenes were cut from the movie, but I felt so out of touch with the subject that I sought more of a real story surrounding him there. Obviously it’s a fine line to walk, having to interview a slew of friends and then have to answer to them later when the truth comes out (“Why didn’t you tell us,” “Why didn’t you try to prevent it,” etc.) and open that big can of worms versus leaving them all out and making the character (who’s not killing themselves because of depression or loneliness) seem like a loner. It worked fairly well, but still nagged at me.
More conflicts arise toward the end, with everyone’s aims and true motives coming into question. Some relationship tension erupts, finances get problematic, and it puts Gilbert on the ropes just as he’s nearing the end of his documentary shoot, and has the rug completely yanked out from under him.
I’ve done my best to avoid spoilers up till now, but I have to discuss one, so if you don’t want to know about the ending, skip to the next paragraph. Okay, we all good? Good. As Gilbert’s romantic life and finances crumble and he starts to have a meltdown, one possible twist I considered was that this documentary ended up being about him. His suicide. It seemed like a very real possibility at one point in the movie, but doesn’t go that route.
The way things end up tries to be shocking, but with all the tension leading into the final few scenes, it’s almost expected. Still, the reactions of the cast are pretty spot on, so I enjoyed that aspect of it. The disclaimer at the end of the credits confirmed that it’s a work of fiction, which was both a relief and a disappointment all at once. The alternate ending presented in deleted scenes offers more closure, but lacks any real surprises. Contrasted against Blair Witch or Paranormal Activity, shock value and twists at the end is practically a must. I can see why they went with the ending they did.
All in all, I thought the performances were well delivered, soundtrack appropriate and moody, and I wanted to believe the story simply for the approach it took to answering tough questions and discussing uncomfortable subject matter. The scripting started to show a bit toward the end but it wasn’t enough to detract overall. Your satisfaction with the ending may vary depending on what you were hoping to get out of it.