Film review: 'Dead In A Week (Or Your Money Back)' is a fresh and original take on the black comedy genre
With a unique perspective on life, death and suicide, the new British black comedy hits the sweet spot between tragedy and comedy with its deadpan style and absurd premise.
On his feature-length directorial debut, British filmmaker Tony Edmunds offers the tongue-in-cheek black comedy 'Dead In A Week (Or Your Money Back)', an absurd, dark, but delightfully funny film that engages audiences from the very first shot all the way till the end.
The plot of the film is wonderfully refreshing. The film stars Aneurin Barnard in the lead role of William, a struggling writer battling the existential dread of everyday life. After trying to commit suicide seven times (ten if you count the "cries for help", as he puts it), William decides to outsource his suicide to a hitman who oddly specializes in these kinds of deals. The deal, as the title suggests, is that the hitman kills you within a week or you get a full refund! But the hitman, Leslie, played by the inimitable Tom Wilkinson has some issues of his own. He's an old man now and fighting retirement by trying to meet his 'quota' for the 'Guild of Assassins' and William is his last shot (excuse the pun) at redemption.
Things get even more bizarre as William gets noticed by a publishing house that finally shows interest in his book, 'My Many Deaths' which is ironically about the many ways in which he tried to kill himself. With the publishing deal comes a new love interest in the form of assistant editor Ellie (Freya Mavor), who is almost equally as messed up as William. So as William slowly finds more and more reasons to live, Leslie is quickly running out of time to make his quota. Hilarity ensues, often in non-sequitur and ironic forms, and the plot ties neatly together in the end in one of the strangest happy endings on screen.
While 'Dead In A Week' might not offer a laugh-a-minute like other popular British black comedy films ('Death At A Funeral', 'In Bruges' etc.), it will make you chuckle (or at least smile) as you try to wrap your head around the bizarre premise. All three lead actors do a fantastic job of bringing their characters to life, and everybody in their own way is just a victim of their circumstances.
Edmunds employs a range of filming styles through the film, all of which are pretty tastefully executed. One particularly bittersweet sequence is the montage of William attempting suicides in all sorts of different ways. He tries hanging himself, gassing, booze & pills, electrocution, jumping off a bridge and even walking straight onto a main road. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your perspective) each method blows up in his face and you can't help but pity the poor guy.
One of the many things commendable about the film is the attention to detail. There are several instances where the camera pauses on little notes, brochures and other print material that have clever jokes hidden in them. For instance, when Leslie reports to the offices of the Guild of Assassins, he receives a brochure for a conference (that he's not invited to). If you pay close attention, on the very top of the brochure is the crest of the Guild of Assassins and a moto that reads "Occidere est Vivere", which loosely translates from Latin to "death is life". The brochure also has hilarious subheadings like "How To Make It Look Like Suicide" (something that gets a callback later in the film) and "A Peek Behind The Iron Curtain" interspersed by mundane events like tea breaks and lunch.
The set design for William's apartment is also carefully laid out, and the many little pieces of paper plastered on his walls that feature little stick-figure plans of suicide offer some great insight into the character's undying motivation to kill himself.
Another of these Wes Anderson-like shots shows us Leslie's scrapbook detailing his biggest achievements in his career as a hitman. The scrapbook is titled "Leslie's Greatest Hits" (get it?) and features hilarious newspaper clippings like "Scientist suicide 'a professional job,' say experts".
Parts of the film also come across as pastiche, paying tribute to some of the great filmmakers who dabble with similar genres. There's a scene where Leslie meets his boss and the head honcho of the Guild of Assassins, Harvey (Christopher Eccelstone). While trying to have a conversation about Leslie's retirement, they digress into a full 2-minute conversation about the career of Michael J. Fox and how it's failing. This feels like a nod to Quentin Tarantino, whose masterful dialogue writing is often centered around film and television in exposition scenes (think the opening of 'Reservoir Dogs' or Jules explaining to Vincent what a "pilot episode" is in 'Pulp Fiction'.) There's also a signature Tarantino trunk-shot wedged towards the end of the film. Also, Harvey's character is reminiscent of Ralph Fiennes' character in Martin McDonagh's cult black comedy 'In Bruges'.
The film's narrative is laden thick with irony and it makes for quite an enjoyable viewing experience. In the only flashback of the film, we see how William's parents were literally killed by a falling piano, probably the most overused trope in the death of cartoon characters across history. This sense of irony, combined with the deadpan tone of the characters' speech creates an atmosphere that never takes itself too seriously. And on the rare occasions that it does, things are quickly shaken up by flying bullets, failed assassination attempts, and on one occasion, a suicide pact that turns into a passionate sex scene!
Even the music for the film is craftily arranged, helmed by the trio of Guy Garvey, Peter Jobson and Paul Saunderson with Jobson's 'Supplication', Isaac Gracie's 'the death of you & i' and YUNGBLUD's 'Tin Pan Boy' (which closes the film) standing out as particular highlights.
'Dead In A Week' is a great start for debutant Tom Edmunds. There aren't any loose ends (at least obvious ones) and everything is strung together methodically by the end. There is no instance where the proverbial 'Chekov's Gun' is left unused or unexplained. All said and done, underneath all the dark humor and surrealism, there might be a smidge of seriousness in here. Perhaps some lesson about how we are bogged down by the weight of modern life and how it can often blind us from enjoying the little things that often truly make it worth living. But before you can realize it, the film springs the next laugh on you and it all fizzles away. And that's definitely not a bad thing and I, for one, have no complaints about the shtick.