As on-the-nose cinematic warnings go, This Is Your Death is like a bright-red clown schnoz. Giancarlo Esposito directs a reality show gone suicidal, but it’s all with positive intent. Writers Noah Pink and Kenny Yakkel mean to affirm life, not death. Society is too obsessed with garbage “reality” shows and social white noise, corrupted by The Bachelor (women pitted like catty gladiators) and warped programming. Success is now monitored by viral appeal. Ex-con models who post slutty pictures 24/7 amass 2.5 million followers, while the youngest college graduate *ever* is known only by a few thousand. Esposito’s response to all this digital rot? Simple: turn it off.
Josh Duhamel stars as television host Adam Rogers, who becomes a national hero after saving one of his Married To A Millionaire contestants during an unexpected murder/suicide finale. Rogers’ network positions him as a hero, but that doesn’t cleanse the blood from his own hands. He stood by as female contestants were used and abused, forced into love then embarrassed on national TV. America watched it happen. Can you truly point singular blame?
After a talk-show meltdown about this disgusting reality, Rogers assumes he’s no long employed – until network executive Ilana Katz (Famke Janssen) offers him redemption. Ratings numbers prove that it’s no longer sex that sells, it’s death. So, Katz hatches an idea for a suicide-based reality show that allows “participants” to kill themselves in front of a live audience. Rogers signs on after assuring the show would air with only his best intentions, same for producer Sylvia (Caitlin FitzGerald). Coming live to your living room, This Is Your Death.
It’s obvious that Esposito has something to say, but tonal struggles lessen an otherwise poignant message. We’re talking about a death-based game show, yet cinematography remains too clean and proper. There’s a very soap-opera-sheen, too bright for such dark material.
Esposito stars as Mason Washington, a two-job parent trying to keep his suburban home – but overly dramatized conflicts offer little enticement. His wife coldly says she’ll leave if their lifestyle were to downgrade, which plays coldly in the scheme of things (cue a long-gaze set against Mason’s Martin Luther King Jr. painting). As obvious arcs are being established, heavy-handed emotional ploys of this nature make it hard to embrace the sinister nature of This Is Your Life. If anything, it feels more like Days Of Our Lives.
Duhamel goes “Seacrest with a conscience” for a performance that avoids certain pretty-boy annoyances, but – once again – drama weakens the overall message. When This Is Your Death opens, Rogers cannot stomach the corruption of network power when his Married To A Millionaire disaster gets swept under a rug. He demands that This Is Your Death give back to humanity, so he offers a call-in number to benefit those who join the show. The season debut starts with a mother (Johannah Newmarch) who raises $300K for her abused daughter based on pledged donations, and Rogers feels fulfillment. A good man making the best of allowed executions.
Rogers boasts reason, retribution and necessary benefit – and then his expected obsession with ratings numbers takes over. By the show’s season finale, all he cares about are bigger deaths, gruesome ideas and being #1 in the ratings (“participants” turns into “contestants”). Money is no longer guaranteed, as viewers vote for a winning kill of the night. So quick to abandon established do-gooding? Duhamel doesn’t have a control of Rogers’ rather rapid moral descent, weakening a central character who undergoes an unfulfilling side-switch.
Esposito’s management of This Is Your Death (the actual show) creates some otherwise soul-sucking moments of introspective reassessment – in a good way (this movie hurts). Deaths all have some kind of personal meaning, and are staged beyond necessity (flashy for the camera). The mother mentioned above offs herself by electrocution via toaster into a bathtub, as per her own request. A young dancer diagnosed with ALS performs his last routine, then presses two revolvers to his temple. Scribes Pink and Yakkel navigate a treacherous fake television show that could collapse without the smallest sense of realism, but intricacies keep us hooked.
As This Is Your Death gains popularity, audience attendees wave hand-made signs crying for more blood. Sick wishes thrust upon human beings who stand on the other side of a bullet-proof window, guaranteeing safety. It’s mean-spirited and vile, but tuned to the wake-up call Esposito so desperately voices. We crave more, more and more – consumption in the most despicable sense.
Alas, This Is Your Death lacks the proper delivery this important take on media perversion requires. It’s never maniacal enough to support Josh Duhamel’s change, nor do dramatic beats supplement a life-ending bite of depravity. Reasoning stands – FCC regulations are rattled off and contestants provide “acceptable” rationale – but Giancarlo Esposito’s jaw-dropping finale isn’t enough to wash the preceding soapiness from our mouths. Caitlin FitzGerald’s unwilling producer fights a good fight, Famke Janssen’s boss is straight villainous and Sarah Wayne Callies attempts emotional lesson-teaching – but none add to social criticisms. “Shut it off!” is such an important line, lost to Hollywood arcs that are unnecessary in an already beyond-dark premise. Less behind-the-scenes corruption, more focus on an important premise that demands a sharper, more focused voice – that’s the This Is Your Death I want to see.
This Is Your Death is a brilliant concept, but tonal mishandling makes for another media takedown that's all bark and no bite.
This Is Your Death Review [SXSW 2017]