The condemned: To Your Last Death (2020)
The plot: Ever wished you could rewind a movie and make a character choose a different path, à la Black Mirror’s choose your own adventure episode, “Bandersnatch,” or the Kimmy Schmidt special? Well, good news: There’s now a movie that does precisely that! Only, a character in the movie, not you, is the one who stops things and makes the others do their actions over again. And there doesn’t seem to be any rules as to when they stop or start. Also, the eventual choices that are made seem to be designed for maximum sadism. Actually, upon reflection, maybe this isn’t such good news, after all.
To Your Last Death centers around Miriam DeKalb (Dani Lennon), earnest head of a failing nonprofit, who is arrested after stumbling out of a DeKalb Industries skyscraper, holding an axe and covered in blood. In short order, we learn that Miriam’s malevolent tycoon father Cyrus (Ray Wise) invited her there the night before, along with her three siblings: Corporate tool Collin (Benjamin Siemon), over-medicated trophy wife Kelsy (Florence Hartigan), and BDSM-obsessed metal-band frontman Ethan (Damien C. Haas). His purpose is pure revenge—after the kids tanked his chances in a presidential race five years’ prior by exposing his decades of abusive behavior (he was actually the V.P. candidate, but whatever), Cyrus is now dying of a brain tumor, and wants his children to pay for what they did before he goes. After he sentences each to death, only Miriam manages to kill the goon tasked with executing her and escapes the building. Sadly, she learns her father has now successfully pinned the others’ deaths on her, instead. Sucks to be you, Miriam!
Here’s where the twist comes in. Some sort of magical being in the form of a woman calling herself the Gamemaster (Morena Baccarin) appears in Miriam’s room, and offers her a deal: If Cyrus’ daughter so chooses, she can activate a time-warp that will send her back to the moment she walked into the building, and get a do-over of the events of the night, to try and turn the tables on her father. There are a few rules that make it seem like this is some sort of cosmic game (Rule one: “You must provide amusement”), but overall, the stakes are clear. Cut to Miriam back in the DeKalb building, as she again outwits her would-be killer and begins a steady progression through the office, evading a pair of hired murderers and attempting to free each of her siblings from the Saw-like death devices in which Cyrus has placed them, in order to make it to safety—though not before taking out dear old dad, of course.
Over-the-top box copy: Weirdly, there’s nary a one on the actual Blu-ray package, not even a tagline—just a brief, pointed description of the plot. (“Now, Miriam must survive both her father’s blood lust and the Gamemaster’s ever-changing rules to save her siblings as she relives the worst night of her life.”) But the plastic wrapping on it has a sticker boasting of the film’s 23 festival awards and proclaiming it “the first-of-its-kind ANIMATED HORROR MOVIE.” (Fear(s) Of The Dark and the Dead Space films would like a word.) This thing is arguably more of an animated action movie, albeit an extremely gory one, but let’s not quibble.
The descent: This is pretty clearly a labor of love for the people involved, a years-long low-budget project that ultimately required an Indiegogo campaign to pull it over the finish line back in 2016 (back then it was called Malevolent, presumably changed after the filmmakers realized there are already like a half-dozen movies with that title) before seeing the light of day three years later. That process involved hiring what looks like an awful lot of Eastern European animators and colorists to draw it. Stylistically, it’s a cross between the cell-shading style of something like Borderlands and a motion comic, the kind of 2-D herky-jerky thing you might’ve seen on MTV’s Liquid Television back in the day. (It’s pretty cool, in that regard.) Another appealing element was the creative team self-describing the story as a combination of Groundhog Day and Saw, which definitely sounds intriguing—though as you’ll see, the latter title is far more apt than the former.
The theoretically heavenly talent: Sure, there are longtime character actors like Ray Wise and Bill Moseley in the voice cast, who are always appearing in tiny little indie projects like this, and William Shatner, cast as an all-knowing narrator called the Overseer, will show up wherever there’s a paycheck. But landing Emmy nominee and Deadpool star Morena Baccarin is legitimately impressive—although given the comparatively few lines she has in the movie, it was probably a single day in the recording booth.
The execution: The problem with To Your Last Death is baked right into the nature of the narrative. It can be fun, and it’s gruesome, and as a late-night curio to watched stoned on your couch, it does the job. But it’s certainly not satisfying from a storytelling perspective, and the reason has everything to do with the choice to make the Gamemaster an utterly capricious absurdity who rewrites the rules of the game—not to mention time and space—for no particular reason, other than the people writing it thinking it would be cool to force Miriam to do another thing they just thought of. Our protagonist is about to escape down a stairwell? Not so fast—reset her! The siblings successfully unite and take out their father with a cool hail of bullets? Eh, wouldn’t it be more fun to force Miriam to kill her brothers and sister, one by one? And if all else fails, the Gamemaster apparently has the power to just whisper in people’s ears to make them do her bidding. There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it—Miriam will reset to mere minutes earlier, if the Gamemaster or her pool of cosmic bettors decide they don’t like what happened. The rules may as well not be rules.
To Your Last Death is a chessboard where one player can swap in another queen whenever they’re bored. That’s not some deliciously sinister demonstration of the cruel vagaries of fate, as the film seem to think it is; it’s just bad storytelling. Which is a bummer, because there’s a lot to like about the movie, from the old-school animation to the gleefully violent bloodletting to the occasional funny line. (Older brother Collin, indignant upon discovering that Cyrus has sealed them in by chaining the fire escape shut: “You don’t chain a fire door!”) But the movie fundamentally misunderstands what’s appealing about the conceit, instead spending far too much time trying to make this empty-headed tale seem as elegantly constructed as a great Twilight Zone episode. (It’s not.) And it’s awfully defensive about itself: After the credits roll, Shatner’s narrator seems to sense you’ll be disappointed by the blatantly unjustifiable machinations of the plot, and thus jumps back in to let you know that, hey, that’s the whole point, maaaannnnnn:
Truth be told, this is also a fairly sadistic film, a far better example of “torture porn” than a lot of the horror movies tagged with that label. To wit: none of the brutal torture devices in which Cyrus imprisons his kids actually possess any possibility of salvation (à la the early Saw films), where every trap Jigsaw sets can be survived, so long as the person caught is willing to do something truly punishing to themselves or another. No, these are elaborate contraptions where, if you follow the rules and make the necessary sacrifice, you… still die horribly, rendering any participation in the torture moot. (So, like the later Saw films.) And in the meantime, hoo boy, does this film linger on the torture.
For example, Cyrus sees Ethan as a lazy good-for-nothing who squandered his expensive education, so he traps him in a chair and forces him to answer a series of basic math questions, the catch being that each time a new question begins, a neck vise begins filling inflating, slowly cutting off his air, until he answers correctly, at which point it deflates and the process begins again. Get enough right and win his freedom? Nope, it just goes on forever, until he dies. Great incentive to play! Similarly, Kelsy is locked into a medieval device that will decapitate her in 60 seconds, unless she can fill the small tub in front of her with enough of her own blood to trigger a deactivation. At which point the clock starts again, and she has to cut herself all over to stop the clock, ad infinitum. Who wants to go first? But the laziest of all these is Collin’s trap: He’s placed in a box and forced to answer economic questions—get one wrong, and hired goon Yurek will chainsaw off a limb. But Collin gets all the questions right, at which point Cyrus… tells Yurek to saw his son in half anyway. What an inventive and thematically resonant punishment!
The sadism extends to the characters, too. This is one of those films where people are constantly saying “fuck you” to each other with the kind of venom that makes you wonder if they all drowned each others’ pets in the bathtub right before the film began. The best example is the aforementioned Yurek, who is literally only here to kill people on behalf of Cyrus, and yet the film stops dead in its tracks to let him deliver a lengthy monologue about how much he loves hurting, raping, and killing women. If you’re thinking, “Huh, that seems unnecessary,” then you and Miriam have something in common. (Though, to be fair, when Yurek squares off with his chainsaw against Miriam and her axe just before this, he says, “Axe against saw. Who will win?” Then lops off her axe’s blade, and says, “Axe lose.” Which is just good fun.)
There are little flourishes that keep rescuing To Your Last Death from becoming solely unpleasant, such as the little cigarette burn that appears in the top right of the frame after the first act, as though this were on a film reel. Or how Ray Wise’s villainous Cyrus actually looks almost exactly like Ray Wise. And when the film leans into the ridiculousness of it all, it has some fun injecting flourishes of lunacy into what is otherwise played pretty straight. (As straight as you can play a story about a woman forced to continually redo her choices during a family-centric bloodletting overseen by a cosmic gambling event.) For example, when Kelsy is stuck in her machine, desperately trying to buy herself a few more minutes of life by slicing her arms to ribbons in hopes of depositing enough blood into the scales, we cut back to Cyrus, listening to her screams—and then he turns to an organ and starts playing “Amazing Grace.”
Or the sound Cyrus’ phone app makes when the helicopter he summons arrives to pick him up. More of these, please, movie!
But for every cool touch, there’s an inexplicable one. When the kids arrive in Cyrus’ penthouse, they have to walk through a tableau of robots pointing guns at them. Why? Who knows? I guess Cyrus thinks it looks cool? Hey, let’s make sure no one makes mention of such a bizarre tableau. Just another day at the office!
Overall, it’s the messiness of the narrative that hamstrings To Your Last Death. From the randomness of the Gamemaster’s plainly rigged process to the flip-flopping of characterization to the point that anything and everything feels adjustable (and therefore we shouldn’t care about anyone, or invest in what’s happening), the movie just doesn’t have a handle on how to effectively tell this story. Or, maybe there is no good way to tell it.
Likelihood it will rise from obscurity: While it’s enough of a curio to merit attention, the film lacks the sensibility or storytelling cohesion to really give it staying power.
Damnable commentary track or special features? Hoo boy, if it’s bonus content you want, To Your Last Death has you covered. If you buy the film, you’re given access to the “Blood Club,” a digital site containing hours of additional features—everything from chats with the composer and actors like Ray Wise to Zoom panels with cast and crew, presumably made very recently. There’s also a 17-minute chat with the writers, which honestly goes a long way toward explaining why the movie’s logic doesn’t really land. (Apparently, it used to involve even messier elements, like voodoo. This is somehow the streamlined version!) But for the curious, the director’s commentary with helmer Jason Axinn evinces a good understanding of how to make the motion-comic aspect of his animation really pop, which makes sense, given the visuals are the strongest component of the movie. The most illuminating moment comes when he watches Miriam have to break glass simply to pull down the handle of a fire alarm, and notes, “I love that she has to break the glass on the fire alarm handle thing. Like, nothing about that really makes sense.”