“My deepest regret is that I didn’t lose just a bit more,” says a one-legged man in Aaron Schimberg’s Go Down Death. “If I could just be rid of this section, my body would be a completely accurate representation of my inner self.” Without a hint of sarcasm, the man gives thanks for his own disfigurement because it turns his body into a better representation of his own personhood. It’s one of the better examples of the surrealist sense of humor that weaves its way through Schimberg’s film, emphasizing a nonsensical “silver lining” to limb loss as if it were very much a matter of fact. In response to the man’s story, his companion, a saloon prostitute of the Wild West variety, looks up at him with a complacent smile on her face, highlighting the biggest problem with Go Down Death: its inability to create characters or interactions interesting enough to match the weirdness and imagination that surrounds them.
Go Down Death begins with a disclaimer, apologizing for the discrepancies between itself and its source material by “folklorist Jonathan Mallory Sinus.” Of course, Jonathan Mallory Sinus wasn’t a real person, but the disclaimer allows Schimberg to adopt a tone of irreverent nostalgia, pillaging iconography from folklore, westerns, and early cinema for its absurdist ends. It largely takes place in a dingy brothel, chronicling non sequitur-filled conversations between johns and prostitutes, though it also follows a child being recruited to work for a doctor who can change bodies and a couple of soldiers holed up close to the front line.
Though the film is set in a war-ravaged town of ambiguous time or place, it was filmed entirely in an abandoned Greenpoint paint factory. The sets and costumes, for both indoor and outdoor scenes, recall a heightened version early Hollywood’s frontier West, all rickety wood structures and rippable blouses. The forest in which the soldiers are holed up is made of evenly spaced out birch trees, all eerily captured in hazy deep-focus compositions. Shot in grainy black-and-white 16mm, Go Down Death resembles a less frantic version of the films of Guy Maddin, who also uses low-grade film stock to evoke early Hollywood.
In particular, a connection can be drawn to Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World, in which Isabella Rossellini plays a barmaid with two glass legs full of beer. Also dealing with amputation, Maddin invests his characters with a sense of camp and ironic humor that twists his absurdist storylines into something altogether more satisfying than anything in Go Down Death (though that’s an easier feat when Rossellini is your star). Every conversation here feels like a dull march toward some visual sleight of hand, and though the actors deliver their lines with a po-faced sincerity, the effect gets tiring far before the film’s inexplicable finale at a contemporary Brooklyn dinner party. Schimberg may have created a unique world here, but he’s filled it with characters notable only for their superficial eccentricities. The end result is a bit like a beautiful diorama, in which the people share a common purpose with the furniture: to fill space and look nice.