In our modern society, the obsession with reality TV is still a prevalent as ever, with millions of Americans regularly tuning in to Bravo, E!, TLC, and the like to peek into the lives of strangers. This fixation is not necessarily new, however, and films like Network, Man Bites Dog, The Running Man, and even The Hunger Games have long criticized and deconstructed people’s obsession with watching televised reality unfold–especially once shocking dramatics and violence start functioning as forms of entertainment. Giancarlo Esposito’s This is Your Death joins the ranks of these films, taking this concept a step further as it tells the story of a popular reality show in which people commit suicide live on the air. It is an ambitious and unsettling concept that certainly sets the groundwork for quite the social commentary. Despite this, however, the film falls short of making a lasting impact, as it is bogged down by melodrama and a surface-level approach to its grisly subject matter.
This is Your Death tells the story of Adam Rogers (Josh Duhamel), the host of a Bachelor-style reality show who suffers a crisis of conscience after a disgruntled contestant kills a man during the show’s live finale before putting an end to her own life. Tired of the vapid and exploitative nature of reality TV, he opts to leave it behind for good. After seeing the episode’s ratings, however, his network executives have another idea in mind: to produce a reality show in which contestants kill themselves on-air, with Adam as the host. Though initially disgusted at the idea, Adam ultimately agrees to host the new show with the stipulation that it be used to do some good for the families of the deceased contestants via monetary donations from audiences and the network. What begins as a means of helping needy individuals with seemingly no other way out ultimately becomes an exercise in twisted entertainment, and Adam’s life begins to intersect in shocking ways with Mason (Giancarlo Esposito), a family man who has fallen on hard times, Karina (Sarah Wayne Callies), his troubled sister, and Sylvia (Caitlin FitzGerald), the show’s co-producer.
On paper, This is Your Death is rich with satirical possibilities. The idea of despondent individuals willingly taking their lives in front of an audience for their family’s monetary gain is unnerving enough on its own and the film feels primed to make bold moves early on. Unfortunately, it only occasionally takes command of its platform, opting for a soapier and more superficial approach to its narrative that doesn’t quite suit its greater intended message. Oddly enough, it ultimately comes across more as an ironic commentary on out-of-touch Hollywood execs than a statement on class, sacrifice, and society’s fixation with real-life carnage. The film’s script, penned by Noah Pink and Kenny Yakkel, is the main culprit in this regard, and it mostly falters as an effective satire because it can’t seem to decide if it wants to be an outrageous take-down of society’s obsession with reality TV or a gut-punching family drama. It half-heartedly attempts to do both, and never fully succeeds on either front in the way that a novel concept like this should.
As a result of this approach, This is Your Death feels too emotionally oversanitized for much of its runtime. This is due at least in part to its lack of believable character development, a shortfall that is especially evident in the journeys of the film’s two leading men. About half-way through the film, Adam takes a rather sudden turn to the dark side, devolving into a caricature of a fame-hungry reality star seemingly overnight. On the other end of the spectrum, Mason’s increasingly melodramatic arc finds him leaping to unreasonable conclusions that do not feel commensurate with his on-screen financial struggles. Whether shoddy editing or truly disjointed writing is to blame for these less-than-effective turns of plot, the film’s trouble with teasing out believable narrative threads only adds to the shallow sense it unfortunately begins to elicit. From a visual standpoint, Esposito’s Hollywood-ready polish doesn’t do much to help this cause either. There is an incongruence here between the grim subject matter and Esposito’s over-stylized directorial approach, but not in a way that is stark enough to suggest irony. In any case, by the time the drama comes to a head here, it is evident that This is Your Death might have been more effective had it at least opted for a grittier and more unforgiving visual approach.
Still, it’s not all misfires here, as This is Your Death does boast some bright spots that work well when all is said and done. The performances in the film are quite solid, and only improve as it approaches a surprisingly moving finale. Esposito, a veteran of stage and screen, channels Mason’s slowly crippling hopelessness with masterful and emotionally attuned skill. Likewise, Callies, who is given one of the film’s meatier arcs as Karina, handles this complex character with a welcome sense of grace. Elsewhere, Duhamel makes the grossly delusional Adam far more bearable than he has any right to be, and Famke Janssen brings her A-game as callous television executive Ilana, a rather nasty treat of a character here. Rounding out the cast, Master of Sex‘s Caitlin FitzGerald also delivers a performance far stronger than the thinly-written Sylvia deserves, a testament to the skilled actress’s commitment. (On that note, please do yourselves a favor and check her out in last year’s wonderful Always Shine).
This is Your Death also manages to deliver a heartrending finale that is far more effective than one would ever expect it to be. It is rolled out in a measured and smartly composed manner that is deeply affecting; with this denouement, the film feels like it finally wants to give its characters the emotional attention they deserve. Every one of these actors shines in the film’s final act–from the nuanced pain of Janssen and FitzGerald to the more openly disquieting turns from Esposito, Callies, and Duhamel–and you can’t help but wonder what the film could have been like had more effort been made to flesh out its character arcs in more authentic and relatable ways from the beginning. Still, the finale alone was enough for me to appreciate what This is Your Death had been trying to do all along, and though it stumbled plenty along the way, I was pleased to see it finally elicit a genuinely striking reaction as an audience member.
This is Your Death is a technically well-made and well-acted film, but it is not without its flagrant flaws. What is a rather controversial film on paper ultimately feels tailor-made for mainstream audiences when all is said and done, complete with easily digestible and on-the-nose commentary that, for all of its bloodshed, is just not harsh enough. Though it likely would have worked better had it taken a grittier approach to its subject matter, the performances in the film are still quite commendable–particularly from Esposito and Callies. While This is Your Death may ultimately be an uneven effort for Esposito as a director, he gets major kudos for pulling it together in the final act and delivering one hell of a gut-wrenching closer that will definitely stick with you.
This is Your Death world premiered at the 2017 SXSW Conference and Festivals on March 11, 2017.