Bringing the mockumentary format to new, soaring heights of deliberate self-consciousness, A Necessary Death is currently available on DVD from Entertainment One. Attempting to interrogate the nonfictional validity of the documentary format itself, A Necessary Death follows a student film crew as they set out to chronicle and narrate the suicide of a terminally ill stranger tracked down through Craigslist. Despite a slightly shaky and awkward second half, the convincingly stripped-down presentation and relatively subtle treatment of the movie’s central themes make it mostly successful, in spite of its flaws.
Gilbert, Michael and Valerie are a team of guerilla student filmmakers with a provocative array of short documentaries already under their collective belt. For their thesis project, Gilbert suggests they pursue a controversially unbiased project, locating a subject who is already intent on ending his own life and creating a first-person document of that individual’s thought process, real-world preparation, and ultimate commission of the final act. After shooting a series of morbid audition videos culled from a list of respondents to a cryptic Craigslist solicitation, the team settles on Matt, a sweetly open but socially crippled twenty-something who has recently been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor.
Despite initial ambivalence, particularly from Valerie, the team sets out to film Matt’s progress toward his eventual self-inflicted demise. As the stakes of the project become continually raised by a mounting deluge of bureaucratic and budgetary constraints, coupled with growing ambivalence from Matt himself about the validity of his own decision, the disparity between the filmmakers’ professional and personal relationships with Matt become blurred, and the moral ambiguities of the project’s basic premise become troublingly, brutally foregrounded.
The movie’s greatest asset is the confidence of its execution, with naturalistic performances and spontaneous presentation that make it feel eerily like a real documentary, particularly in its more mundane early sequences. The film falters slightly during the second half, however, as its plot becomes gradually more convoluted and glaringly moralistic. The wooden, amateurish presentation of the first half feels appropriate to the pointedly detached irony of its tone, but as the movie’s real thematic core becomes more pronounced, the lack of chaotic energy begins to feel alienating and incongruous. The narrative and performances are genuinely stellar for such a modest project, however, and despite a few hiccups, the finished film is still relatively strong and engaging.
From a technical perspective, the movie’s ultra-early shot-on-DV format results in a frequently jerky digital picture that’s sometimes slightly distracting (or maybe this is just a disc formatting issue, I have no idea). Otherwise, aside from a slightly wonky and slow-loading menu design, E-One’s disc is fairly solid, featuring two separate commentary tracks with the film’s director and cast respectively, as well as some deleted scenes and a slightly less downbeat alternate ending. A Necessary Death is far from an indie masterpiece, but it’s definitely an entertaining and worthy effort nonetheless.