REVIEW: To Your Last Death (2019)

dir. Jason Axinn.

Miriam (Dani Lennon) is having a rough day: the main backer of her non-profit peace organisation has pulled out and her estranged father, the war-mongering billionaire Cyrus DeKalb (Ray Wise), has summoned her and her siblings for a mysterious meeting. After this summit goes even worse than expected a stranger gives her a second chance to put things right, but Miriam soon discovers this apparent benefactor may not have her best interests at heart. 

The most immediately notable thing about To Your Last Death is the aesthetic, animated horror being a rarity and 2D animation unusual for any genre. Character designs are in a hand-drawn graphic novel style, reminiscent of TV series Archer and the rotoscoped A Scanner Darkly, exaggerating features and with a bright colour palette to accentuate the outlandish subject matter and dark humour. The voice cast – including Morena Baccarin as the Gamesmaster and the unmistakable William Shatner delivering small sections of bookending narration – are excellent, fleshing out their characters with emotional depth: Ray Wise in particular is perfect as ultimate evil father Cyrus; a hyper-charged King Lear figure without a Cordelia.

Cyrus’ relationship with his children is in fact almost Shakespearean: a few years earlier Miriam, her sister Kelsy (Florence Hartigan) and brothers Ethan (Damien C. Haas) and Collin (Benjamin Siemon) publicly sabotaged his bid to run for Vice-President, fearing for the fate of the nation if their sadistic father gained real political power. The siblings have since all taken different directions in adulthood: eldest Collin still seeks his father’s approval in vain; Ethan tried to pursue a career in a rock band; Kelsy married the family’s business rival; and Miriam shunned her wealthy upbringing to run a charity. So when they turn up at the reunion Cyrus pits the siblings against both each other and their own pasts, with secrets, resentments and bitter rivalries all coming to the fore resulting in bizarre and blood-soaked mayhem. 

Although cartoonish in subject as well as style – Cyrus’s methods of testing his children are straight out of the Bond villain playbook, complete with shark tank – the film also explores deeper themes, such as different reactions to parental abuse and the complicated relationships between siblings resulting from shared trauma. There are also suggestions throughout that the events of the film may be part of a larger game, but this doesn’t diminish the impact of the serious subject.

The sci-fi aspects do, however, feel a little unexplored. Miriam is given the ability to go back in time and replay the last few hours, but doesn’t really put this into action as a means of salvation. As time loops in cinema tend to become the narrative focus (Happy Death Day; Edge of Tomorrow; Groundhog Day) it feels a little jarring to not have the concept utilised more thoroughly.   The larger sci-fi scenario also has the potential to explore other questions – How much agency do the characters really have? And to what extent is the world Miriam experiences actually grounded in reality? – but these are only touched on lightly. 

Funny, engaging and at times touching, with surreal imagery and an unpredictable plot anchored by substantive characters, To Your Last Death explores big themes without taking itself too seriously. Whilst it draws on a wide range of influences from farces to Saw and The Matrix, it makes its own mark as a fresh and original addition to the horror genre. You’re certainly unlikely to encounter another animated action-horror-political-sci-fi-gorefest any time soon.

Melissa Cox

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