The ways human beings continue to exist even when they’re gone generally make for sentimental tear-jerking films when used as subject matter. However, when thrown into a darker genre, like horror or thriller, that sentimentality becomes something a whole lot more sinister. What Death Leaves Behind is Scott A. Hamilton’s non-linear debut feature that does just that but to mixed results.
What Death Leaves Behind is about Jake Warren, a family man who finds himself struggling through dialysis while awaiting a kidney transplant and has been for 7 years. Once he finally gets that transplant, he never gets the chance to soak in the joy that should come with such an occasion because instantly nightmares begin to haunt his dreams depicting a man assaulting a woman. As his behaviour drastically changes, Jake forges his insane path leading to the realisation that what he’s seeing are the memories of the individual whose kidney he now has inside him.
There’s a lot to like about the themes of the first twenty minutes of this film. The non-linear style doesn’t reveal much of where this film is heading in this period, so it plays more like a deeply sympathetic look at those unfortunate enough to find themselves on the transplant list. The film vividly captures the tragedy that is the nature of kidney failure; it is both harsh in its reality and heartfelt in its depiction. This opening is the perfect example of everything What Death Leaves Behind does right; when it dares to depict raw emotion, it has all the power to make audiences feel something. When it gets lost in pseudoscience, it becomes an unfollowable mess.
Unfortunately, the latter is what dominates the story. The middle of this film loses base with the tragic reality the opening embedded us in. Jake becomes obsessed with the frankly ludicrous idea that the cells of a human can carry memories and, well, that’s precisely what is happening to him. The script never overcomes the ridiculousness of this concept, with the main culprit being choosing to tell this story in a non-linear fashion. It was a decision that added nothing to the experience of the film, and by the end, there is a real sense that utilising more straightforward storytelling would have made much more of an impact.
There is only one asset to the core portion of the film, the performance of Khalil McMillan as Jake. It is an excellent acting debut.
From behind the camera What Death Leaves Behind isn’t as successful as the actors were on their side. As mentioned before the edit is difficult to justify and takes away from the film far more than it adds this makes it difficult to praise the direction. However, it was Hamilton that led his actors to the great work they produced, and on that front, he has nailed his job in his debut.
What Death Leaves Behind is more than it had any right to be considering that the middle portion is sluggish and difficult to take anything of substance from. It is thanks only to a couple of engrossing performances and the surprisingly deep beginning and end that this film becomes something worth spending some time with.
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