He Never Died (2015)
Dir. and written by Jason Krawczyk
Starring Henry Rollins, Steven Ogg, Jordan Todosey, Kate Greenhouse, Booboo Stewart
I’ve often lamented on this blog that a mystery is --almost inevitably-- going to be more satisfying than a solution. This is something of a catch-22, of course, because a mystery without a solution is often equally unsatisfying, a long come-on followed by a coquettish rebuff. But how, in this world of savvy filmgoers, are they really going to come up with a mystery intriguing enough to capture our fascination but unusual enough to actually surprise and satisfy us when the inevitable explanation rolls around? It’s a classic dilemma: a mystery is an irresistible means to energize any tale, but we’ve seen so many mysteries that picking out the possible solutions in almost any film is child’s play for a jaded filmgoer. An out-of-the-blue solution with no basis in what came before is frustrating and unfair, but a well-supported solution is instantly predictable and dull. Attempts to deal with this problem have resulted in solutions which run the gamut from disastrously idiotic (THE MAZE), to despondently inevitable (THE OTHERS), to the intentionally vague (ZODIAC), to the infuriatingly movie-negating (SHUTTER ISLAND), to the downright unimportant (VERTIGO).
Sometimes the movie is still real good, obviously, but the solution is still something of a disappointment. I think I can count on my hands the number of times I’ve seen the a satisfying solution pulled off successfully. But I guess I’ll have to get some toes involved soon, because fuck me if HE NEVER DIED isn’t a superbly engrossing mystery with a solution every bit as bold and startling as the journey by which we get there. I should have known we were in for a good one, because while DARK WAS THE NIGHT had an awesome title font and then proceeded to be one of the worst movies of the year, HE NEVER DIED starts with a proudly low-rent title font that makes it look like the credit sequence to an early 90’s TV show. It doesn’t give a fuck about that shit, cool fonts are beneath notice to this lumbering giant of badassness.
Before we talk about the plot, though, let’s take a moment and bask in the glory of the following sentence: This is the movie Henry Rollins was born to make. It’s been a well-established scientific fact that Rollins is history’s greatest man since back in his days as a Washington DC Haagen-Daaz assistant manager, and he’s been in a steady stream of movies since the end of his tour of duty as singer for the seminal hardcore band Black Flag. Everyone has always known he was a powerful elemental force, but up til now no one had yet figured out how to actually harness that power effectively, like solar wind or Ryan Reynolds. He’s been a cyberpunk in JOHNNY MNEMONIC, a prison guard in LOST HIGHWAY, a mob bodyguard in HEAT, a 4-wheeler driver in JACKASS 2, a badass survivalist in WRONG TURN 2, and also a real-life detective in WEST OF MEMPHIS. But aside from helping to give Steve-O a painful tattoo and getting the West Memphis Three released from prison, his film roles up til now hadn’t quite managed to generate the kind of potency he is obviously capable of.
That changes here. As Jack, the mononymic hermit living in a cheap apartment and limiting any contact with humanity to its barest minimum, Rollins is finally able to capitalize on his unique superpower for stoic intensity. Jack is a man of routine; he pays his rent wordlessly in cash, he eats a strictly vegetarian diet at a local diner, he plays marathon bingo at a small-stakes local church, and spends as much time as possible sleeping. But he’s also a man with secrets; he has a steamer chest filled with very, very old antiques. He doesn’t drink alcohol, but the way he looks at a glass of beer, you know this hasn’t always been the case. And his dreams --which we hear, but don’t see-- are filled with screaming and violence. Oh, and also, maybe I should have mentioned this earlier, but he’s also bribing a med student (Booboo Stewart --I’ll give you a second to adjust to a world where someone has that name-- from X-MEN DAYS OF FUTURE PAST) to supply him with bags of human blood. Hmmm.
His simple rhythm is disrupted by two forces which insert themselves into his life. The first is the appearance of his teenage daughter (Jordan Todosey, Degrassi: The Next Generation), who he’s never met, but who is very insistent on spending a little time non-consensually bonding. Jack is irascible and solitary and does not take well to his new housemate, but doesn’t seem to have the wherewithal to get rid of the persistent young woman. Meanwhile, he has another problem: for reasons unknown to him, he keeps getting stalked and hassled by gangsters and has to beat the tar out of them and not give a fuck. In fact, he seems about equally annoyed by both unwanted presences in his life.
Not giving a fuck is kinda his thing. He has very, very little inclination to acknowledge or respond to any other human being, even the cute diner waitress (Kate Greenhouse, minor parts in TV shows and stuff, although she did star in the interesting-sounding THE DARK HOURS) who might as well be flirting with his eggplant parmesan for all the response she’s getting. With great effort, he’s capable of holding a basic conversation and only seeming a little off, but his interest in picking up on social cues or meeting other peoples’ expectations of him is virtually nil. Only when the situations escalates enough to disrupt his routine does he reluctantly start to get more actively involved in dealing with shit.
That doesn’t sound like a a lot of fun, but half the charm in the movie is watching Rollins’ annoyance and bafflement that he has to deal with any of this. Every answer someone drags out of him seems to require intense concentration, and his demeanor suggests he’s constantly calculating whether it’ll take less effort to continue to unconvincingly fake a conversation, or just punch the person in the face until they go away. It’s a great weirdo role, as perfectly suited for Rollins as THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH was for David Bowie, in the sense that the character is in a lot of ways a perfect summation of both the actor’s public persona and personal quirks. Rollins is already an uncomfortably intense, awkward obsessive, and those qualities are amplified here to terrific comic effect, but also a subtle pathos. For all his quirky charm, Jack is totally isolated and disaffected, lost in the endless monotonous doldrums of a life with no purpose. He’s been doing it so long that he barely remembers how to even pretend to be human, if, indeed, he ever knew.
Who, exactly, Jack is, and what has made him this way, are the movie’s defining questions, and writer/director Jason Krawczyk (little-seen crime thriller THE BRIEFCASE in 2011 and a couple shorts) portions out little hints at the perfect pace to keep us hungry but never frustrated. But there’s more going on here, too; just why is it that these gangsters are so keen to pick a fight with him? And who’s the mysterious, sinister figure that only he can see? What’s up with the mysterious scars on his back, which his daughter seems to possess as well? Strangeness on top of strangeness. Not all of these questions will be explicitly answered, but the movie provides exactly enough explanation that you can draw your own conclusions -- a setup which is usually the perfect cocktail of preserving some degree of curiosity while still providing the satisfaction of some revelation. In this case, though, it helps that we do get one definitive answer, and it’s a fuckin’ doozy. Whatever it is you think is going on here, I can pretty much guarantee it’s not quite what you imagine.
But while the mystery provides structure, the film is equally a strange character piece, an awkward comedy/drama about whether or not Jack’s going to be able to find his way out of the comfortable hole he’s dug for himself and reclaim some of his humanity. Several people in his life -- the medical student who wants to be his friend, his daughter who wants to know her father, the waitress at the diner who just wants some stable companionship -- are reaching into his den, trying to pull him out, and he seems both reticent and somewhat torn, like he knows better than this, but a part of him still can’t seem to entirely reject the outside world.
Where this all goes is just as unexpected as any of the movie’s surprises, but I want to talk a little about it so I have no choice here but to get into SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER territory. Seriously, you’ll be a lot happier knowing as little as possible going in, and since there’s really not any chance of you seeing this thing for awhile (I got to see a very early screening at the AFI Spooky Movie festival this year, again, my life is dope and I do dope shit) I really urge you to refrain from reading any further til you do. So right now, this is for me more than anyone else.
SPOILERS AHOY. OK, so the most interesting thing about this whole movie is that it doesn’t quite go where you expect in terms of the drama, let alone mystery. When gangsters kidnap Jack’s daughter and tell him they’ll kill her at midnight unless he shows up, you figure it’s time for him to cowboy up, kick some ass, and reclaim his humanity. But he just doesn’t seem to care. Or at least, not enough to do anything about it. He seems a little sad, but he’s philosophical about it. You can’t help but sort of hate him for being so selfish. His indifference starts to make more sense when we learn a little more about him, though. Even in this spoiler section, I’m not going to explain exactly what his deal is, but suffice to say, you’ve already guessed from the title and a few hints early on that he’s some kind of immortal, supernatural entity. What differentiates HE NEVER DIES from basically any other movie I’ve ever seen is just how old he is. Jack, it seems, is old enough to consider Louise from SPRING a total n00b to be pwned. I mean, how could you realistically ask him to care about his daughter when he’s seen whole generations, whole civilizations --everyone he’s ever met and cared about even a little-- wither and die? Just like SPRING, actually, HE NEVER DIES finds a central conflict in whether or not Jack will be able to give in and allow himself to reconnect to life anyway, even if he knows it will end in heartbreak, even if maybe he can’t bear to see yet another love come into his life, only to wither and die while he persists, adding one more painful memory to those dreams he keeps having.
MORE SPOILERS AHOY! The difference between this one and SPRING, though, is that Jack comes to the opposite conclusion; or, rather, has the opposite result thrust on him. When the adorable waitress who’s been trying to reach him the whole movie finally hears his whole story, she’s not relieved, she’s horrified. This will obviously be the end of their relationship. Living forever inevitably isolates you, turns you into a monster who can’t possibly care about people anymore. Living forever means you eventually do everything, including all the worst things that people are capable of. “I’ve killed 9-year old kids for no reason at all,” he says, matter-of-factly. You expect a movie like this to end with some measure of understanding reached, but the gap between Jack and a normal human experience is just too great. He can’t bridge it, and he’s finally learned that painful lesson enough times that he doesn’t even try anymore. Hell, he probably learned it centuries ago. But cruelly, there’s still that tiny little human part of his brain that tugs on him, that makes him wish and wonder, even though he knows there’s no point to it. Makes him --completely against his will and his better judgment-- get involved anyway, occasionally. But it’s to no avail. He’s not going to ever have a relationship with either of the women in his life who are mistakenly trying to crack his shell. He has to pay the waitress to help him once he finally decides he’s gonna make an effort to save his daughter. And when he finally understands why she’s been taken, it becomes obvious this is all his fault, blowback for a crime he committed years ago and probably hasn’t even thought about since. The end makes it clear that if there is, indeed, a lesson to be learned from his centuries of limbo, he certainly hasn’t learned it yet. And maybe there isn’t even a lesson at all, maybe this is simply the dispassionate sadism of a universe even older and more disconnected than he is. END SPOILERS, END SPOILERS.
Anyway, HE NEVER DIED is fuckin’ great. It wobbles only towards the very end, when it struggles a little to find a suitable climax for a man for whom nothing means very much. But its bold, darkly philosophical grace note at the end is --if delivered in a manner ever-so-slightly clumsy-- still more than enough to redeem everything. The film itself was obviously made on the cheap. More than just the font strongly evokes a no-budget 1990’s indie crime drama. It would have fit right in between THE MINUS MAN and A LIFE LESS ORDINARY (though it’s better than both) save for Rollins’ recent shock of bright white hair. The filmmaking appears to somehow be blissfully unaware that an entire generation of color-corrected filters, rabid avid editing, and gloomy realism in acting has interceded between 1995 and now. But in a way, that’s part of its charm; the unassuming, point-and-shoot style and very slightly affected acting serves the movie well. It establishes a strong baseline of the movie’s inner reality, which is something of a gritty fairy tale, but, blessedly, one with absolutely no tiresome modern meta pretensions.
If you would enjoy a film where a bingo-playing supernatural Henry Rollins reluctantly goes to war with some small-time gangsters, this gives you the best imaginable version of that. If you wouldn’t like that, there’s no apology here, no effort to be hip or disaffected or postmodern so they can later deny that they really meant any of this. Like Rollins himself, the movie is so earnest and direct in its approach that it’s both off-puttingly funny and kinda endearing -- but also plenty capable of prickly aggression when the occasion arises. HE NEVER DIES is not a movie which will ever have a legion of fans, but I think it has cult classic written all over it, and deserves about 6 DTV sequels, each cheaper and more ridiculous and heartfelt than the last. Which is why I’m super excited that apparently they’re planning a god-damn miniseries. I’m usually strictly a movie guy, I don’t go for these newfangled Television box things, but here’s a case where I’ll obviously have to make an exception. Who says old guys can’t keep up with the times every now and again?
Finally, a mystery with a truly satisfying solution.
|By the way, I'm pretty sure they just photoshopped an old picture of Rollins over the cover of the Slash-produced NOTHING LEFT TO FEAR poster. Observe:|
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ALEX MADE IT THROUGH AWAKE: N/A, although she'd definitely have been into this one.