Till Death (2021)

Megan Fox got to play her own version of Gerald’s Game this year, in Till Death, which recently appeared on Netflix in the U.S. Although there are certainly some issues with pacing, it’s still fairly effective, especially for a film with such a small cast and, from the end of Act I forward, only one location. 

On the eve of Emma (Fox)’s eleventh wedding anniversary to her husband, Mark (Eoin Macken), she breaks things off with her lover Tom (Aml Ameen). We learn that Mark is a lawyer and Tom is a member of his firm when Emma meets Mark at his office for their anniversary dinner. While waiting for him, she can’t help but glance through an NYPD file on his desk, detailing her attack by Bobby Ray (Callan Mulvey), whose assault left her with a scarred back; we also learn that she blinded him in one eye with her keys while defending herself. Mark immediately betrays his controlling nature, noting that he expected Emma to wear “the red dress” (his favorite) and waving off her own feelings by noting that they have time before dinner to take her home to change. At the restaurant, he also orders dessert for her after she declines, and forces her to blindfold herself before they drive to their next destination; she reluctantly accepts, although she removes the fabric in exasperation just before the couple arrives at their lakehouse. That their anniversary also falls in the dead of winter may be a metaphor for the coldness of their relationship, but given how … overwritten other elements of this screenplay tend to be, I’m not sure. 

Clocking in at 90 minutes, the plot doesn’t really get going until the 22 minute mark. I’ll avoid spoilers as much as possible on the off chance that you want to watch something suspenseful but not terribly scary this spooky season, but the description on Netflix itself reveals the “twist” that gets the movie going: “A woman finds herself shackled to her dead spouse as part of a revenge plot. As the rest of the plan unfolds, a desperate battle for survival begins.” Although not particularly groundbreaking, there’s still plenty of menacing anxiety to be had here, and it’s reductionist to compare this one to Gerald’s Game (even though, um, I did that) when its narrative deviates from that novel/film fairly quickly. Both Till Death and Gerald’s Game are psychological thrillers about survivors of different forms of violence that initially present as narratives centering around immobility and physical isolation as purely physical dangers but which turn into very different narratives, but the similarities end there. Game becomes a story about the struggle for survival despite psychological breakdown in the face of certain death from dehydration or starvation, as well as outside factors in the form of a wild dog and a spectral figure; Death turns into a more straightforward home invasion thriller, with the added complication that our heroine is literally unable to decouple from her dead husband and that her attacker is the man who stalked and stabbed her a decade before, now released to menace her again.

Calling Till Death “more straightforward” is neither an insult nor a compliment, nor is it good or bad that the film feels a little like it was written by Donald Kaufman from Adaptation. The film walks a fine line between throwing twists in at the right places and following the path of least resistance in others. Not every movie needs to blaze every trail, and if you don’t know what kind of movie you’re watching by the time that Megan Fox wakes up in perfect, un-smeared makeup, then hopefully you know what kind of movie you’re watching by the time that she washes her husband’s blood off of her face and then carefully considers her still perfect, still un-smeared makeup in the bathroom mirror. And it’s not that the film can’t pull the rug from under you; for instance, once Emma gets over the initial shock of her husband’s death, she immediately tries to shoot through the cuffs binding her to him, only to discover that there was only one round and the pistol is otherwise empty. Frustrated, she tosses the gun and it lands under the bed, and I immediately thought that she would soon have to deal with a wild animal later (perhaps because I was too stuck on my Gerald’s Game hypothesis) and would be unable to get to the gun in order to defend herself, after finding bullets elsewhere in the cabin. But no, her husband’s so many steps ahead of her that he’s already cleared the house of anything useful, and although Chekhov’s gun does come into play again later, it’s in a more interesting way than I could have expected. 

The film’s biggest weaknesses come when it tips its hand a little too much. The scenes that exist to demonstrate and set up Mark’s controlling nature are overwrought and on-the-nose. He’s not just picking out her dresses and ordering her dessert, he’s also oddly theatrical; at any moment up to the point of his death, he’s a hair’s breadth from tipping his hand too much, too early. When stuck in an elevator with both Tom and Emma, who pretend to only know each other from a prior office Christmas party, Mark turns juuuuust too menacing for a picosecond too long as he growls “You know damn well it wasn’t the Christmas party,” before breaking the tension he artificially inflated by jovially adding “It was the holiday party!” noting that it wouldn’t do to have the political correctness police scold them. It’s not enough for Emma to notice, with a wistful gaze full of regret, that a woman at another table has accepted a proposal; the narrative has to force the two women into the bathroom at the same time so that Emma can give the younger woman a warning about becoming trapped in a loveless marriage. Hating on Megan Fox’s acting ability was pretty du jour internet comedy during the late aughts, but she’s more than fully capable of conveying what needs to be communicated in these scenes without needing to telegraph these beats so strongly. I’m not sure if the producers didn’t have enough faith in Fox, in the audience, or both, but we spend far too much time with unnecessary narrative wheel-spinning before we get to the point that I’d almost recommend skipping the dinner sequence entirely, but it’s threaded with just enough foreshadowing and plot-seeding that it has to be born on one’s shoulders for a bit of a slog. 

Despite that there are sections of the narrative that can feel like a bit of a barefoot slog across the snow, I’d still say that this is a cute way to spend an evening, especially if you’ve ever had a bad breakup (which, I mean, who amongst us hasn’t?) and wondered if it could have been worse. Turns out, yeah, it could have been. 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

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