New Indie Releases: What Death Leaves Behind (2019) - Reviewed

Cellular memory is the theory that memories are stored throughout all of the cells of the body, not just the brain. Specifically, there have been instances of organ transplant recipients who are believed to have have taken on personality aspects of their donors. The scientific accuracy of this is at best questionable, much like the tangible existence of the soul, but those who believe do so firmly. The concept of cellular memory is at the heart, so to speak, of the new indie thriller What Death Leaves Behind.

Khalil McMillan, reminiscent of a young Michael K. Williams, is Jake Warren, a man whose lengthy stint on the kidney transplant list is finally about to pay off.  Once he receives the new organ, he begins to have disturbing visions that he believes to be of the murder of his donor. As he attempts to discover the meaning of his visions, he learns of cellular memory and becomes obsessed, with this belief leading to some very shocking conclusions. The film is presented in a non-linear style, moving backwards and forwards in time through Jake's story, inter-cut with news clips about a serial killer stalking the area.

What Death Leaves Behind is the debut feature for writer/cinematographer/director Scott A. Hamilton, and it's an exceptionally ambitious one. Intricate stories like this often fall apart in the hands of more experienced filmmakers telling a linear story. Somehow Hamilton keeps it all together, using the time jumps mostly to great narrative effect.  However, at times is is a bit jarring, jumping so rapidly and randomly through the story that by the film's ending one feels a bit exhausted, or like they've missed some key part of the story. It may not work as well as films like Memento or Pulp Fiction, but it's an interesting way to tell this particular story.

Is this the Sunken Place?

This is a quality production all around, from the dialogue and editing to the gritty-looking Philadelphia-area locations, and especially the performances. McMillian carries the film's considerable emotional weight almost effortlessly in his quiet but tortured performance as Jake. The film has a great supporting cast as well, topped off by The Wire's Christopher Mann as Jake's uncle/father figure, and Shaira Barton as Jake's wife Lisa who struggles to understand her troubled husband. Every performance in the film down to the most minor of characters is top notch.

What Death Leaves Behind is an impressive, quietly menacing thriller. Even when the film overshoots its mark, it manages to right the ship and give the viewer plenty to think about.  McMillan's brilliant performance keeps the film's somewhat far-fetched premise grounded in a gritty reality, and while the story may not unfold smoothly the viewer remains invested in how this will all end for Jake. Though it's not exactly light viewing, What Death Leaves Behind is worth seeking out for anyone looking for an interesting if now wholly original thriller.

-Mike Stec