As far as WTF Sunday usually goes, this turned out to be a bit of a mild one. Not nearly as batshit bonkers as I was hoping. Not nearly as original either.
Saw meets The Dice Man
Six strangers all wake up in cells in a poorly-lit basement. One by one they are taken from their cell by a man calling himself Jacob and their lives are put up against the roll of a die. One of the six is a detective, and his partner is trying to track him down. Will there be anyone left by the time she finds them? What do these six have in common? Will there be one original moment in this film?
Yep, it’s another in the “strangers with a hidden connection wake up in a poorly-lit basement” sub-genre. But what it lacks in originality it makes up for with some really nice production design (backhanded compliment much?) and a few actually rather good performances. If this flick had been produced ten years earlier and given a decent release, it could very well have been the high-water mark for its type.
John Pyper-Ferguson (Pin) steps up to the plate as the psycho mastermind Jacob. Pyper-Ferguson makes Jacob a distinctly polite and soft-spoken whack-job, coming across as almost rational and very charismatic. Imagine if Saw had been written by Luke Rhinehart. Like Jigsaw, Jacob puts his victims in a place where their lives are at risk. Unlike Jigsaw, however, he doesn’t leave them in a deathtrap that they must fight to get out of; he has someone else roll a die, the result of which determines if the victim lives or dies. Pun-tastic, isn’t it?
Of the six victims, only two really make an impression. Young Canadian actress Emily Hampshire plays the inveterate gambler Lisa who, considering how much time and money she spends at the casino, must be one of the world’s worst blackjack players. The other is Mark, the burnt-out detective played by Elias Koteas. Unfortunately, his big set-up scene is pure cliché: the drunk cop sitting on the couch with a bottle of Scotch and a revolver, nothing any of us hasn’t seen a thousand times before. Mark himself is written fairly thinly, but Koteas manages to invest him with some depth through his performance alone. Even with that, none of the six are particularly likeable.
Mark’s partner Detective Sofia Valenti is a bit of a weird one. On the one hand, former Bond Girl Caterina Murino does well as the cop going off on her own to find Mark after the brass shuts her down. With her hair tied back and very little makeup I didn’t even recognise her until I saw her name in the credits (a fact I am more than slightly ashamed to admit). On the other hand, she is saddled with a clumsy backstory involving her father that is mentioned in passing here and there but ends up going nowhere.
I did mention the production design, didn’t I? That and the photography are the film’s biggest strengths. The basement location is sparse and atmospheric with the innocuous perspex cells for the victims lined up on the back wall. The whole thing is shot in almost sepia tones; everything in shades of brown and grey, with all the lighting done in-shot with lamps and wall sconces. It all has a timeless feel, helped by some subtle VFX on the sweeping exterior shots of the nameless city. Visually, it’s quite similar to Se7en, in that everything seems very carefully chosen to set a noirish mood to go with the material, and not just to be needlessly stylistic.
One important way this differs from Saw and its torture porn ilk is in the depiction of violence. This is the type of flick where you think you see more than you actually do. A lot of the bloodier moments are handled in quick cutaways, and the lighting keeps most of what is shown in shadow. The worst sequence is when one of the six is drowned in a water tank while strapped down to a chair. The roll of the die is to determine how many minutes the tank stays full. There’s something about drowning that makes it one of the most unsettling ways to watch someone die in a movie. It’s a primal fear thing, and it’s an effective choice by director Dominic James (in his debut feature).
It’s unfortunate that the story of DIE is so derivative. James has obviously squeezed every penny out of his no-doubt limited budget. He has crafted a film that is very watchable, full of decent performances, but in an already crowded genre it just doesn’t have anything new to say. Worth a rental though, if you like this sort of thing.
(By the way, Nick Mead – who has a “story by” credit for DIE – made a short film back in 2004 called Dice Life, co-written by and starring… Luke Rhinehart. That philosophy must be catching)