Before I'm Dead

Before I’m Dead (2021)

Genre is often just a way to frame and to storify psychological experience, and this is certainly the case with Before I’m Dead. The feature may assume an increasingly mind-melting range of genre elements – space invasion, doppelgängers, time paradoxes, a looping trap (expressly compared to Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day, 1993); and it may feature a protagonist, Nolan Cruise (played by the film’s writer/director/editor/producer J.R. Sawyers), whose forename points to the director of such brain-bending sci-fi as Inception (2010), Interstellar (2014) and Tenet (2020) and whose surname evokes the star of heady SF features like Vanilla Sky (2001), Minority Report (2002), Oblivion (2013) and Edge of Tomorrow (2014). Yet despite all these foregrounded associations with genre cinema, and even intimations of cosmic travel, Before I’m Dead is confined almost entirely to a single ‘old grungy apartment’, where Nolan is working through PTSD, guilt, grief – and a severe case of agoraphobia which has him locked in, unable to cross the threshold to outside. So while the generic influences of this film may come from external sources, or be beamed in via Nolan’s television – which always seems to be broadcasting Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) or Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow’s The Last Man On Earth (1964) as a reflection of Nolan’s own apocalyptic sense of beleaguered isolation – what we are seeing unfold is also internalised, both literally and metaphorically, as our hapless hero must grapple with both inner demons and the maze of his own mind.

Nolan’s trauma derives from a mass shooting incident in a restaurant where his beloved wife Carla (Camille Montgomery) was killed right before his eyes. Now he stays in their apartment 24/7, living off home deliveries, self-medicating with alcohol on top of his prescription drugs, and generally subsisting in a hermetic microcosm where every day is the same. While Nolan avoids all physical contact with the delivery guy, talks to his sister and his lawyer only on the phone, restricts meetings with his therapist Diane (Denise Boutte) to online video, tries to keep out his complaining downstairs neighbour Otis (Gary Klavans), only lets in the landlord Lionel (Jerry T. Adams) when he has to, and repeatedly ignores nagging texts from the mysterious Ivy (whose very name betokens clinging persistence), he is still playing host to Carla’s ghostly presence (even she has to tell him, “This is far from normal”). He is also having more and more encounters with his own double, which he first discovers in his bath, lying bloody and very dead, as an apparently fixed signifier of his own eventual destiny.

The great obstacle to Nolan’s recovery is his unwillingness, even his inability, to step out the front door – but it will turn out that the bathroom door may be even more significant, opening up the apartment to time glitches and other anomalies which gradually come to entrap Nolan in all manner of revealing confrontations that he has been trying to avoid. This man, suffering recurrent flashbacks to an event of deep trauma and caught in a looping cycle of fear and recrimination, is forced to face existential questions about what he has and has not done and how he might rewrite his own life story with a better ending. So either Nolan is going through a prolonged period of mental drift and gradual healing, which the film realises through the language of genre – or aliens really do randomly convert his bathroom into an interdimensional portal…  

Before I’m Dead opens with a quote from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and in a later scene Nolan watches the oldest known film version of the novella with the (late) Carla by his side. Like Scrooge, Nolan is visited by the ghosts of his past, present and future, as he strives to reintegrate himself for the world beyond his four walls. Whether in the end he succeeds in this, or just plunges further down his own rabbit- (or worm-)hole, is left for us to imagine – but along the way, we are invited to experience a kind of psychological fragmentation which will seem all too familiar to anyone who has recently been living alone under strict conditions of social distancing and pandemic lockdown. This is filmmaking where a small budget is made to accommodate big ideas, and a single, non-synchronic location encompasses a multiverse of suspended states. It is an ambitious and ever more uncanny journey forwards and backwards through a man’s unraveling psyche – and a story that needs to be pieced together like Carla’s jigsaw puzzle on which Nolan occasionally works.

At some level, Nolan’s goal is to escape his apartment – but by the film’s close, viewers may wonder if he has even been there, or if he is in a different kind of limbo, struggling to unburden his conscience before moving on to rejoin Carla in a better place. There may be a key in the title – but the beauty of Sawyers’ scenario (co-written with Jessica Hill) is that the door is ultimately left open to multiple interpretations.

strap: In J.R. Sawyers’ sci-fi psychodrama, an agoraphobic man stages his PTSD, grief and guilt within the confines of an apartment

© Anton Bitel