How long has it been since the number of onscreen serial killers surpassed those active in the real world? Our national obsession with men who take life as part of their own inexplicable personal rituals may be unhealthy, troubling, or simply a harmless genre detour unconnected to the audience’s collective id, but it’s definitely at least one thing: boring. The dynamic between quasi-professional killers and the cops who hunt them has become so ingrained that when Don Cheadle’s DEA agent shows up in rural Ireland in The Guard, the locals have trouble believing he’s anything but a behavioral profiler sent to track down some particularly industrious slasher.
The killer in Adam Wingard’s A Horrible Way To Die is the polite kind, a large fellow with soft eyes and a bushy beard who shakes his head before doing the deed, as if brushing off a sudden chill. Even as AJ Bowen leads his victims to their deaths, he’s polite: Sure, he’ll duct-tape a woman and throw her in his trunk, but he’ll apologize if she bumps her head as he’s yanking her out.
The trouble is that we’re meant to take this seriously, like grainy-film-stock-and-handheld-camera seriously. Simon Barrett’s script is full of dopey tropes recycled from other movies—as soon as Bowen spots a stray screw on the floor of a police cruiser, it’s clear that a bloody Lecter-esque escape is only minutes away—but Wingard shows no awareness that he’s making anything but a gritty indie. Still, he almost pulls it off. The credibility Bowen and Amy Seimetz, as his fearful ex-girlfriend, bring to their roles nearly legitimizes the movie’s underlying silliness. As Seimetz tries to 12-step her way back to a normal life, eventually starting up a relationship with fellow alcoholic Joe Swanberg, we see the instability that, combined with heavy drinking, could enable to overlook her boyfriend’s frequent absences and his ease with a hacksaw.
It’s apparent early on where Bowen and the film are headed, but they draw things out, periodically slipping backward in time so that, for example, we see Bowen in a motel room with a naked female corpse, then later see him using the same woman to get through a police checkpoint. As with the camerawork, the scrambled timeline seems like an effort to disguise a paucity of original ideas. It’ll be interesting to see what Wingard can do when he actually gets hold of some.