If paranormal horror movies have taught me anything, it’s that the dead never actually stay buried. Whether they become roaming zombies, lost souls or scorned ghosties, some “people” will do anything to avoid their eternal afterlife – and that’s the story of Jamie Marks Is Dead.
The Ruins helmer Carter Smith returns to direct his own personal story of life and death, the unfortunately premature ending of a young boy’s life, but Jamie’s story also plays directly into our own fears of wandering helplessly into a dark unknown. Man’s most common paranoia dreads whatever comes next, after our mortal souls have passed into some spiritual realm (let’s not even debate religion here), and young Jamie Marks helps confirm that even in death we’ll have those same, anxious fears – except we’re one step closer to uncovering life’s greatest mystery.
It all starts when the body of a bullied high schooler, Jamie Marks (Noah Silver), is discovered washed up on a river bank. Even though most people didn’t respect Jamie in life, the death still affects different people in different ways, sitting heavily with a cross-country star named Adam McCormick (Cameron Monaghan). Feeling sympathy for the boy, he goes to visit the location where Jamie’s body was found, where he runs into Gracie Highsmith (Morgan Saylor) – the unfortunate bystander who stumbled upon Jamie’s corpse. Striking a romantic relationship, Gracie lets Adam in on a disturbing secret – Jamie isn’t exactly dead. After one strange night, Adam starts seeing Jamie and begins talking to the “dead” boy. Can Adam help this lost soul, bringing happiness to Jamie even after his passing?
While some movies shamble through purgatory, keeping ghosts alive without reason, Jamie Marks Is Dead breathes essence into the undead. Smith introduces Jamie to us as a bloated carcass, tainted blue from freezing waters, and the auteur then works backwards to establish Jamie’s life through tormented memories. The mystery lies in Adam’s curiosity, wondering why Jamie still roams Earth after being found deceased, thinking it could be a situation of unrest until the dead child’s murderer is brought to justice. It’s rather funny, because Smith never questions the existence of an afterlife, but instead somehow makes undead characters human – claiming that we’re still able to experience the same expressive emotions even once our bodies have been laid to rest. That’s the beauty of Jamie Marks Is Dead, never really understanding Jamie’s form or predicament, yet still managing to form a sympathetic bond as Adam reaches out to his new undead friend.
It’s Adam’s bond with Jamie that sets most of the dramatic tension, so it’s only fair that we analyze Noah Silver’s interactions with Cameron Monaghan – two boys that form a bubbling cauldron of confusion, curiosity and unexpected friendship – almost as if Adam is clearing a guilty conscious a few lifetimes too late. There’s a revealing scene early on where Adam watches helplessly while some alpha-male jocks harass Jamie in a bathroom, our only glimpses of Jamie alive, and even though Adam wasn’t part of the savage bullying, you can still grasp his sense of protective anger. It’s almost as if Jamie is giving Adam a second chance to reach a level of acceptance in himself, as guilt and regret pull from deep within the runner’s emotions. Much like how Life After Beth becomes a lesson in letting go for Dane DeHaan’s boyfriend character, Jamie Marks Is Dead reflects similar themes of living with our actions, being forced to accept our own fallacies without letting them destroy our current livelihoods.
Without the chemistry between Monaghan and Silver, the pseudo-haunting of Jamie Marks would be nothing but another bargain drama, but these boys develop a sweet bond over topics that should be far too morbid. Silver pairs a timid adoration with a vaguely mysterious nature, constantly keeping us on our toes as if we’re waiting for Jamie to unleash some supernatural plan of soul-sucking proportions. This shadiness builds a world Smith would rather keep to himself, leaving viewers on Monaghan’s equally uninformed level, which makes his character’s blind faith in Jamie a tad bit unnerving considering how much trust is being placed in the hands of a dead soul. Monaghan embraces Adam’s savior mentality, and his want to crack Jamie’s case shows a kind sweetness that Silver plays off of, bringing out a want in Jamie for nothing but human compassion – something life unfortunately didn’t show him.
Jamie Marks Is Dead doesn’t rely on being a terrifying horror movie, but instead a bone-chilling tale of regret, forgiveness and acceptance, albeit with an eerily sinister subplot. Carter Smith created an undead story of friendship, as there will be plenty of moments where Jamie seems full of vitality, but there’s an equal exploration of embracing whatever lies ahead, and letting go of the past. In this case, that past is a mortal life, and it’s Jamie who must deal with his cold, breathless state, but Adam does his best to ease the transition – a warming story of finding friendship in the strangest of places. Jamie Marks Is Dead becomes anything but a conventional paranormal thriller, and certainly loves playing every hand tight against its chest, but the shortage of information allows lead actors Cameron Monaghan and Noah Silver to truly embrace every moment of boyhood bonding. It’s a calculated risk, but one that pays off safely for Smith’s delightfully successful second feature.
Cameron Smith finds redemption in Jamie Marks Is Dead, an unconventional paranormal story about accepting fate and moving on - no matter how the road ahead is paved.