Director and co-writer Scott A. Hamilton makes a big deal out of his debut feature, “What Death Leaves Behind” being an example of “non-linear” storytelling.
Such movies employ tricky timelines, sometimes employ the rare “flash forward” along with that hoary cinematic device, the flashback.
But Hamilton — no, he’s not the figure skater — oversells the gimmick in this interesting, somber but slower-than-slow fantasy-thriller. He even defines it in an opening title.
It’s just that it’s not that “tricky,” and the trick adds little to the proceedings. He’d have been better served amping up the suspense, peppering in more action, getting characters to speak and interact with a lot more heat.
I like the title, and I guess the working title — “The Kidney” — was a bit too “Spoiler Alert.”
Screen newcomer Khalil McMillan is our protagonist, a man we meet as he leaves he little girl behind in a convenience store to go outside and pummel a seeming stranger.
Flashback? Or a flash-forward?
In the movie’s fictive present, Jake Warren (McMillan) is a quiet, unassuming married man who is slow to move, slow to do most anything. It’s the source of what we take to be comic friction with his wife (Shaira Barton).
“I didn’t ask for help!”
But Jake’s not slothful, just a man conserving his energy. He has kidney failure, and stays on the books at his uncle’s HVAC business, working in the office, so that he has insurance and can have dialysis.
A very long set-up shows us this life, of treatments, arguments over money, support group meetings. Jake’s on the waiting list. Then Jake is off it. He has a kidney.
That’s when his troubles really begin.
Jake has dreams where he’s sitting in a pool of light watching this heated, violent argument between a heavily tattooed man and just as tattooed woman.
The nightmares open up, and Jake starts digging into what’s going on. Might it be “cellular memory?”Could the kidney donor’s life and death be unfolding in his dreams?
And how does this tie in with the constant flow of news reports, a serial killer on the loose in their corner of Pennsylvania?
Those connections become clearer in the drip-drip-drip script that drives what we call the “action” of the picture, which has entirely too little of that to recommend it.
There have been horror movies on this subject before. “The Eye” was one, and “Body Parts” and “Tell Tale” and so on. None were told with “non-linear” stories.
So what we’re left with is an intriguing concept for a story, so slackly told that it feels as enervated as Jake is pre-transplant.
There’s not much in the way of action to draw us in. Supporting characters are thinly drawn, the killings — when we start to see them and not just see them reported on “the news” — are dull.
“What Death Leaves Behind” isn’t much of anything we’ll remember it for.
MPAA Rating: unrated, violence
Credits: Scott A. Hamilton, script by Chad Morton, Rachel K. Ofori, Scott A. Hamilton and Nico Giampietro. A, Artists’ Rights release.
Running time: 1:27