The New Zealand film mixes laughs and pathos for a rewarding experience
New Zealand stoner comedy Dead (in select theaters this weekend and available on VOD next on 10/6) occupies an awkward space. As a comedy it’s not particularly funny. Sure, there are a few chuckles here or there, but the film is content to get by on its amiability. This is a movie about a guy who gets high and talks to the dead, after all. But, the best parts of Dead happen when the characters strip away any pretense of amusement and grapple with the heavier themes lurking beneath the surface. It’s this emotional reckoning that elevates Dead from a pastiche to something with bite.
Within his niche profession as a ghost whisperer, Marbles (Thomas Sainsbury) has carved out a comfortable life. He goes around and offers a morbid sense of calm and finality to people mourning losses. Do the people enlisting Marbles’ services really think he’s communicating with their loved ones? Possibly, but, that’s almost beside the point. These are people rendered desperate by their grief and loss. With Marbles there to indulge them, he’s giving his customers something to ease their pain just a little. The movie doesn’t take itself too seriously, so when the heavier moments break through, they can sneak up on you.
Marbles’ routine is shaken up when the spectral Officer Jayson (Hayden J. Weal) asks for Marbles’ help catching a serial killer. Marbles and Jayson are an entertaining pair. It’s not that their personalities clash as much as gently brush against each other. It feels like most movies opt for a pricklier report for the sake of conflict, but the friendlier vibe suits the film. It also allows the narrative focus to remain on the case. Jayson is one of several gay men to fall victim to the killer, but he died with a potential piece of evidence nearby. As Marbles and Jayson work the case, and involve more people, everything gets stickier.
Most notable among the supporting case are Jayson’s sister, Yana (Tomai Ihaia), and Marbles’ mother, Janine (Jennifer Ward-Lealand). It’s easy to get caught up in the fun of the investigation, but Yana and Janine help remind viewers of the stakes. They’re forced into a new reality, one full of unanswerable questions and unfillable holes. Having lost her husband, and Marbles’ father, Janine has been dealing with her loss for a while. With the news of Jayson’s death, Yana is at the beginning of her journey. Loss and grief are simultaneously bonding and isolating. It’s not new, or particularly profound, to say that everyone experiences loss and grief, but experiences those things in their own way. But, when it’s rendered as well as it is here, it has a galvanizing effect. It’s this part of the story that provoked the strongest reaction from me, and it’s the thing I keep thinking about as I sit here writing this. I don’t know why it hit me the way it did, but I appreciate it.
Despite the surprising emotional punch, Dead is a fun, easygoing movie. Credit goes to Weal and Sainsbury. In addition to co-starring, the pair co-wrote the script and Weal directed the film. They’re generous collaborators, able to be and the forefront of the action or letting supporting players take over. They don’t overplay their hand on the emotional or procedural sides of the story, so when everything converges in the film’s climax, everything pays off.