I’m not going to pretend to “get” Go Down Death; I don’t believe there is anything to “get.” It’s filled with bad songs, bad poetry, bad soliloquies about its titular, looming character, Death, inexplicably, as there’s no observation about death, just much talk of it. There is a pair of naked people, probably post-coital, discussing at length the woman’s twin sister — dead, of course — and not much else, to no conclusion, though maybe the man was married to her and is now confused, or maybe he wasn’t; it, like everything else, is never made clear. There are the soldiers, wandering endlessly in the woods, who talk about graves and piles of bodies, and the little Indian boy, who is in nearly every scene, and might have cancer, is going to die — I dunno.
Throughout, when people aren’t discussing death they’re ranting against “The City.” The camera stares at an ill-educated man while a doctor questions him, off-screen. “You ever go to the city?” the doctor asks.
“Once,” says the man.
“Once was enough, eh?” They both laugh.
The stories — claimed to be adaptations of the mere six pages left by folklorist Jonathan Mallory Sinus, who never lived and is, presumably, just an excuse for the meandering meaninglessness of the movie — flit into existence and out of it again, then flicker back, briefly, before disappearing again. They are not linear, nor does the word “story” actually seem to describe what they are. “Scenes,” even, seems too deep. “Visions,” maybe, but that sounds too complimentary. Recurring people — not characters, I don’t think, just the actors — pop up in similar settings and say things over and over with slight variation, then go away, come back again later, without pattern, cruelly.
I don’t know for sure, but can guess that Aaron Schimberg, the writer/director, is an avid fan of David Lynch’s Eraserhead and Guy Maddin’s Cowards Bend The Knee, as Go Down Death wants to mimic them badly — all fog and skittering grain, unilluminated prose dribbling. It is trying. Maddin sometimes gives himself over to this kind of indulgence, but rarely, and with much more entertainment value. It is writing in shadows simply for its own sake, thinking that if you obscure something enough people will want to peel back its cover and figure out what is underneath. Hear me, Schimberg, please: that is not so.
In the final 20 minutes (I was watching the clock), an audience comes on-screen, watching a movie, themselves — the same movie that you’ve been watching, apparently. They try to get advertised to by some guy that was wandering around at the beginning of the movie, who then gets beaten to death by a man in a gorilla suit wielding a baseball bat. (Don’t ask me.) Then there’s a commercial for “The City,” and we’re taken there: a dinner party, shot frenetically, where the dialogue makes some sense — I mean, it’s still bad, but it makes sense! This, I guess, is what everyone was fighting; there are intellectuals who sip wine and argue with one another, like Hannah & Her Sisters shot like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It never goes back to the Freaks-via-a-soap-opera world it existed in for the first 70 minutes; completely inexplicable.
Maybe to someone, Go Down Death makes a lot of sense, but I can’t imagine anyone — even its makers — enjoying sitting through it. I go into every movie I see (and, I’d like to think, everything that I do) wanting to like it. I’m donating my time to it, after all. And still, I’ve seen a lot of boring, useless movies, ingested a lot of seemingly meaningless art. Go Down Death is one of the most perilously boring things I’ve ever seen. Not only can’t I parse through it, but I don’t know why I would ever want to.