Adopting the deliberate, melancholy pace that is a cornerstone of the proud Sundance tradition, Jamie Marks Is Dead wants desperately to be River’s Edge. So bad. In fact, it would probably settle for dinner and drinks with River’s Edge, followed by weepy sex and an in-bed discussion of moody cinematography and teen angst.
Jamie Marks is (spoiler alert) dead, his battered body found on a rocky stream bed. As Jamie wasn’t popular in high school, but rather the frequent target of urinating bullies, the student body isn’t necessarily devastated by the loss. The only two people who seem to care are Adam (Cameron Monaghan), a kind-hearted jock, and Gracie (Morgan Saylor; Dana from Homeland), a vodka-swilling rich girl who collects rocks and flares her nostrils a lot.
Jamie’s ghost appears first to Gracie, and then Adam. When he first appears, director Carter Smith places his corpse––hunched and wet, clad in tighty-whiteys––at a distance, at the far edge of the frame. It’s a haunting use of composition, and at first glance, Jamie Marks Is Dead has the potential to be that rare brand of cerebral, thoughtful horror. Unfortunately, the film ultimately regresses into the sort of generic existential drama that has plagued Sundance since its inception. No horror to be seen here. Move along, people.
Unhappy with his home life, Adam allows Jamie to lead him into a bleak netherworld, where other tortured souls are waiting to return home––occasionally with Jamie’s help. There’s a super deep metaphor lurking somewhere in Jamie Marks Is Dead, but for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what it was. There’s an emphasis on Jamie’s reluctance to leave his earthly life, so in some ways the film seems to be a reflection on the sad inevitability of death. The vaguely homoerotic overtones of Adam and Jamie’s friendship indicate the movie is a celebration of unconditional gay love. At other times, it comes across like at treatise against high school bullying. Frankly, I have no idea what the point of Jamie Marks Is Dead was. Too bad, considering how arduous the journey was.