Written and Directed by Shawn Christensen
Cast: Shawn Christensen, Fatima Ptacek, Emmy Rossum, Paul Wesley, Ron Perlman, Richard Schiff
Suicide and comedy usually don’t mix – or at least doesn’t go over very well with audiences. To be fair, it is a very serious, controversial, and often tragic subject, but sometimes the only way you can properly examine and express the nature of something that serious is through laughter. Very few filmmakers dare to tackle the subject at all, even fewer decide to make comedies about it, and fewer still pull it off in any sort of effective way. Writer/director/actor Shawn Christensen has made a beautiful, poignant, and deeply funny movie about depression, suicide, family, making mistakes, and opening your heart to those around you.
Before I Disappear follows the various unsuccessful and interrupted suicide attempts of an ex-junkie named Richie during his last night on earth, each time leaving a new draft of a suicide note for his departed true love Vista. Just as he slits his wrists and gets into the bathtub, the phone rings. His sister Maggie, whom he hasn’t spoken to in years, desperately asks him to pick up her daughter Sophia from school. Richie hesitantly agrees and bandages his wounds to meet his niece. From that point on, Richie and Sophia are on a journey of discovery about themselves and each other. Richie comes to care for Sophia, making him question his decision to kill himself. Meanwhile, Richie is embroiled in an underworld cover up that plagues his conscience, Maggie is facing some trouble over an affair with a married man, and the insanely gifted and driven Sophia has a test at 8:22AM the next morning.
The first thing I thought of when I started watching When I Disappear was Buster Keaton’s comedy short Hard Luck (1921) where a destitute Buster spends the first half of the film trying unsuccessfully to commit suicide. The movie ends with him instead finding a family (although in a rather fantastical way). I didn’t think much of it until later when Richie’s boss throws a private party where they are screening Buster Keaton’s The General. I find it unlikely that this is a coincidence given Christensen’s decision to approach Richie’s suicide attempts comedically and in such a similar way. Keaton had a taste for the ironic in his films and it is clear that Christensen appreciates a good dose of irony himself. Before I Disappear is darkly and beautifully funny, often strikingly surreal, and deeply touching. It is the perfect storm of elements that come together to make this a blazingly unique film that hits all the right notes. Christensen knows, as did Keaton, that comedy both enhances and soothes tragedy and that it intensifies pathos.
And while some directors might hesitate to cast themselves in the lead role of their own movie, Shawn Christensen is absolutely the perfect choice to play Richie. I honestly couldn’t imagine anyone else nailing the timing, mannerisms, behavior, and mood of Richie quite like Christensen does. And it would be hard to imagine anyone else having quite the same complex chemistry with Fatima Ptacek’s Sophia either. As for Ptacek, she is a real discovery as the serious minded, over-disciplined, wickedly smart Sophia. She is mature beyond her years, and yet there is something of Richie in her that draws them both together. Before I Disappear is a truly wonderful film that proves that there are still fresh ideas and unique voices in the film industry, and here’s hoping Christensen continues to add his to the mix.