The Mortician | New Orleans Film Fest movie review

The Mortician is almost impossible to classify.  I saw it described as “post-apocalyptic,” but it’s not really SF; a fair number of people in line with me for the screening thought it was horror because the main character is a mortician, but it’s not horror; technically I guess it’s a drama, but it’s not what I think of when I hear “drama.”  The movie is set in a city that has gone to hell, with gangs running rampant and new bodies coming into the city morgue almost daily.  When a young woman’s body is fished out of a canal and brought to the morgue, the mortician (Method Man) finds himself embroiled in the tragic aftermath of her death, especially for her son (Cruz Santiago)—who is now also being targeted by the same man who killed his mother.

The first thing I want to talk about is the fact that this movie is shot in digital 3D.  When I saw that on the marquee, I rolled my eyes and prepared to be disappointed.  I’ve said before that I’m not a fan of 3D, because I’ve never seen it really add anything that I valued to a film.  The Mortician has changed that.  There is not a single moment of 3D “effects” that are in place to make you jump.  Instead the filming plays with perspective, really making distance shots look deep by having several layers of objects (like a building corner in the foreground, fence in the middle ground, character in the background) and creates scenes that simply would not read the same way in 2D, such as bloody water circling a drain when the counter is in the frame so the sink appears…well, sunken.  I think the scenes would still read well on a 2D screen, but they were enhanced by the technology.  This 3D was subtle and for artistic effect—not a cheap thrill factor—and that made it work for me.

I really loved the world this movie created.  It was a strange blend of times; the “present” story seems to be in a completely modern world, but the “past” we glimpse feels more like 1950s or early 1960s even though the present is only 20 or so years after the flashbacks.  That, I think, is part of the intention to make this a world out of time and space as we know it.  The city is not a specific city, not a real city.  The culture feels like the lawless, only-the-strong-survive type that is common with post-apocalyptic settings (so that description wasn’t totally inapt); it reminded me of the gang-ruled territory in Heartless.  And the cityscape itself is fascinating…all hollowed out buildings and exposed rusting beams, graffiti-covered walls and sharp corners.  The world seemed almost sterile, despite its dirt, because there were so few plants and so few people and no animals anywhere.

The acting was really solid, always worth saying when you’re talking about an independent film.  Method Man was great in this role.  I haven’t seen him in much else, but he is known as a rapper who plays hardasses when he acts, so this character was not at all what you’d expect from him as an actor.  The mortician is shy, introverted, and bullied despite being one of the larger men around, physically; he is clinical and closed off almost to the point of dysfunction.  Method Man plays that sort of skittish pushover believably, which can’t be an easy attitude for a large, self-confident man to project.  The boy, Cain, really tugs at your heart with his soulful eyes and his utterly unselfconscious emotional displays—the scripting has him very much a child, yelling when he doesn’t get his way and not yet having learned that boys don’t cry, and the young actor in the part sold it.  He reminded me of the boys in Slumdog Millionaire, that kind of authenticity.

The story that unfolds is beautifully simple.  That means that for some people the film will be slow.  I like that sort of thing—The Mortician is a patient movie from a patient director, in a day and age when that is not the norm.  There is some violence (including one scene of utter brutality), and a lot more implied, and there is a looming threat that creates a tension in the film, but it’s the tension of foreboding not of fast-paced action.  If you’re going in expecting a thrill ride then you’ll be disappointed.  But if you could enjoy a film that unapologetically blends a world of brutality and decay with a patient, character-driven film and an artistic aesthetic, then The Mortician needs to go on your movies-to-watch-for list.