TADFF 2023: 'Daniel's Gotta Die' Is Lifeless

Directed by Jeremy LaLonde

Starring Joel David Moore, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Jason Jones, Carly Chaikin, Iggy Pop, Bob Saget, Chantel Riley, Varun Saranga, Dax Ravina

Photo courtesy of Vortex Media

BY Marko DjurdjićPublished Oct 26, 2023

Films that subscribe to the Martin McDonagh School of Violence and Cynicism can only go so far. Like all of McDonagh's films, the story will inevitably stall somewhere between "nihilistic drivel" and "inconsequential bore." It's a spectrum of contempt and cruelty, and while some will claim that these works faithfully reflect society in an unsentimental and "real" way, I contend that such readings irresponsibly reinforce pessimism as somehow more authentic and honest, and thus deserving of praise.

Such is the vibe of Daniel's Gotta Die, the new dark comedy from director Jeremy LaLonde and screenwriter Matthew Dressel. 

The film stars Joel David Moore as Daniel Powell, a perpetually positive sous chef whose unfathomably rich father, Edward Powell (Iggy Pop) is nearing death. After the patriarch dies, Daniel, who is the only conscientious member of his family, is given an ultimatum by his father's trusted yet slippery assistant, Lawrence (Bob Saget, in his final performance): he can keep all of the money or split it with his three unworthy siblings (Mary Lynn Rajskub, Carly Chaikin and Jason Jones). Daniel chooses the latter.

With this choice comes a very specific caveat: in order to get the money, the siblings must spend a weekend with Daniel at the family's palatial beachfront estate in the Cayman Islands, getting to know each other and performing a series of chores laid out by Edward. If they succeed, Daniel will still get the lion's share, but the rest of them will receive a sizeable chunk.

The Hitchcockian nature of Daniel's Gotta Die becomes immediately apparent during its Saul Bass-inspired intro. There aren't enough artful title sequences these days, and it's refreshing to see one that aims to set the tone for the whole film. It's just a shame the film itself doesn't live up to these lofty ambitions.

From the outset, Daniel's Gotta Die feels like a lesser version of the two Knives Out films, a bloodless (pardon the pun) indictment of privilege and nepotism. The siblings are portrayed as inherently bad people who make exclusively bad decisions — an incredibly uninspired choice. They have no real reason for wanting Daniel dead. He appears to be a pragmatic and well-rounded guy who just wants them to bond and is ready to share his fortune with them. This lack of motivation positions them as caricatures, and we could care less about them or their fates.

Such a superficial approach ensures that the conniving siblings are exceptionally unlikable, with their greed, vulgarity and addictions standing in sharp contrast to Daniel's sincerity and friendliness. Jessica (Chaikin), the influencer sister, has a narcissistic, doll-like energy; the perpetually high Victor (Jones) presents as a spineless dope; and Mia (Rajskub), the most venomous and cartoonish of the bunch, is the epitome of monotonic evil.

Living on what he describes as a "frequency of positivity," Daniel possesses all the jittery energy and good vibes, and while his optimism is commendable, LaLonde and Dressel make him so unbearable that viewers will immediately be rooting for the siblings. Moore is expressive and charming, but Daniel's obliviousness borders on the unforgivable, and his "aw shucks!" attitude quickly grows tiresome and annoying.

And this is one of the film's biggest flaws: everyone is supremely unlikable, even Daniel. They are all walking clichés without anything to connect with. While Emily (Chantel Riley), Daniel's fiancé, and Carter (Varun Saranga), Mia's assistant, are meant to be the foils to an otherwise abhorrent family, they're relegated to secondary roles and plot points that are even less fleshed out than the Powells. That being said, although they have very little to work with, the actors are the film's saving grace.

With Daniel indisposed for an extended section during the second act, we spend an excruciating amount of time with just the siblings and Lawrence, bombarding us with unfunny sitcom tropes, groan-worthy quips and senseless "violence," all of which rely on morbidity in a way's dull and unpleasant. The ironic finale reinforces its misanthropic conceit, and Daniel's eventual turn during the climax is way too little and way too late.

Replete with audio and visual red herrings that point to danger, there are a few legitimately funny moments (a "Get Well Soon" balloon being brought to Edward's funeral; Daniel exclaiming "Boardgames!" with a beaming grin on his face while his siblings plot his demise), but the film squanders this potential early, instead leaning heavily on cheap gags and derivative cynicism-as-humour. LaLonde's direction is assured and altogether safe, but it's the tedious, flat and formulaic script that persists as the film's true culprit, with obvious plot twists serving only to underwhelm and manipulate.

With Daniel's Gotta Die, waiting for the inevitable has never been so dull.
(Vortex Media)

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