“I will live in the past, the present, and the future. The spirits of all three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons they teach.”— Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
The epigraph of J.R. Sawyer’s Before I’m Dead — and subsequent direct referencing of Charles Dickens’ classic — describes the movie’s plot in a nutshell. Sawyer plays Nolan, a regular man whose partner, Carla (Camille Montgomery), is killed by a shooter while the two are out to dinner. Nolan survives the event but finds himself agoraphobic and mentally traumatized, confined to his small apartment. The small unit comprises the extent of his mental and physical domain. He can barely imagine anything outside of the apartment besides, at times, the room where Carla died. It’s a hard way to live. The world starts to unravel around him. He mentally travels to the past, the present and even visions of the future to understand what he’s been through and where he’s going.
Before I’m Dead is an exhausting adventure through Nolan’s trauma, throwing science-fiction concept after concept at the audience as a way of expressing his continued detachment from reality. Nolan narrates the picture, expressing malaise, confusion and regret in an almost monotone voice. The science-fiction concepts work visually because Sawyer shoots them in a lo-fi, avant-garde way, but the story is fundamentally difficult to connect to because Nolan is not an interesting character.
Trauma is a go-to catalyst for storytelling and always has been. Recently, though, it seems trauma is where many independent filmmakers start and stop with the characters they create and the tone they seek to convey through their stories. It’s endemic in the past five years of horror films, as mediocrities like Midsommar have allowed audiences to hail the representation of loss as something profound. But trauma isn’t a story and following a man wallowing in disoriented grief for an hour doesn’t necessarily make for a dynamic, insightful or interesting movie. “I have experienced pain. Let me contemplate it” is what Before I’m Dead and other similar stories boil down to, with the added flourish of occasional violence.
He’s a traumatized individual in a single location who interacts with his therapist, his neighbor and visions of Carla. His ruminations are just that — internal monologues of a person who sounds interesting to themselves but isn’t filtering their thoughts and feelings in consideration of a recipient. The writing is simply not exciting, compelling or surprising enough to carry the movie’s many plot twists and jumping structure. As reality continues to break apart, it’s clear Before I’m Dead is building to an ending that will be open for interpretation because the balls it tosses into the air cannot be reasonably resolved in a movie so disconnected, on purpose, from a single physical reality. In the end, all you need is to read the Dickens epigraph to understand everything Before I’m Dead tries to say, and it will be a clearer takeaway than you’d get from actually watching Before I’m Dead.