Saturday, August 30, 2014

It's a Dead, Gloomy World: "Jamie Marks Is Dead" flawed but thick with tragic, chilly mood

Jamie Marks Is Dead (2014) 
100 min., not rated (but equivalent to an R).

A somber, harshly grim supernatural twist on the coming-of-age tale, "Jamie Marks Is Dead" is never as fully realized as desired, but there is something about it that stirs in the mind. Adapted from Christopher Barzak's 2007 young adult novel "One for Sorrow" by writer-director Carter Smith (2008's skin-crawling bodily/botanic horror-thriller "The Ruins"), the film encapsulates a chilly, mournful mood with broken specters throughout that reverberates afterward without ever becoming a dreary trudge. Even with hushed suggestion and metaphor, Smith never once flinches at death, youthful alienation or longing between two young men, one alive and one dead. That such a boldly disturbing film can be made well without striking the wrong tone and actually came to fruition at all is what matters most. Discussion will most likely be opened up between readers, queer-cinema historians and horror scholars.

The half-naked, pale-blue body of bullied teenage outcast Jamie Marks (Noah Silver) is found on a creek bed by local girl Gracie (Morgan Saylor) when looking for rocks to add to her collection. When track-and-field athlete Adam McCormick (Cameron Monaghan), a classmate of Jamie's who never joined in on the bullying but never stopped it, visits Jamie's bridge-side memorial, that's where he meets Gracie. The two teens start hanging out and become the only two people who can see the spirit of Jamie when they find him shivering and standing by the woods outside Gracie's bedroom window. Meanwhile, Adam has trouble with his own trailer homelife, single mother Linda (Liv Tyler) wheelchair-bound after being hit by a drunk driver and grade-A asshole older brother Aaron (Ryan Munzert) always giving him a hard time. With Jamie existing in limbo, reappearing in closets and requesting help, Adam now gives the lonely ghost what he always wanted, and maybe vice versa.

Eternally grey and clammy, "Jamie Marks Is Dead" has been created with a straight-faced mood and resonant sensitivity. It's a metaphor-heavy horror drama that stands for something else, a supernatural haunting exemplifying closeted homosexuality, and for that reason, the film never falls into hokiness as it easily could have. Before Adam gives him clothes to wear, Jamie walks around in his tighty whities and cracked glasses; the imagery is more eerily unsettling than anything. The tone is further solidified by Darren Law's wintry, evocative lensing and rural locations in upstate New York, with the image of a dead deer carcass hanging from a basketball hoop never being brought attention to but only adding to the overall sense of gloom and tragedy. Whereas the film excels more as a mood piece, it often keeps the viewer at arm's length. Was Jamie ever more than a locker-room victim? Did he have any hobbies? Narratively, Carter Smith's screenplay has a few too many nagging gaps. The particulars of why only Adam and Gracie can see Jamie (and, in the former's case, other dead people) are glossed over, but one just accepts it. Dangling subplotsone with angry ghost Frances Wilkinson (Madisen Beaty) reliving the same day she murdered her abusive parents and then took her own life, and the other involving Adam's mom's budding friendship with needy, alcoholic neighbor Lucy (Judy Greer) who put Linda in the wheelchairare not satisfactorily developed enough to understand why they exist. Moments where Jamie requests Adam to whisper words (e.g. "murder," "sorrow," "love") in his ear and, later on, mouth probably read better on the page, too.

Cameron Monaghan (TV's "Shameless") is low-key in his portrayal of Adam, making him empathetic but not flawless. As the dead, bespectacled Jamie Marks, Noah Silver (TV's "Tyrant") is heart-shatteringly fragile that he's expected to leave a lasting imprint on the viewer. In the role of the offbeat and sexually experienced Gracie, who can be a hard one to figure out, Morgan Saylor (TV's "Homeland") is pretty captivating with every nuance she reveals to the camera. Aside from the younger TV actors, more seasoned performers Liv Tyler and Judy Greer are too often marginalized in go-nowhere parts. Not extremely marketable to appeal to a YA demographic but far more maturely handled than expected, "Jamie Marks Is Dead" makes up for the times it overplays its hand with a quiet, melancholy power. 

Grade: B -

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