On-Demand: New Life (2023) - Reviewed

Images courtesy of Brainstorm Media

In the age of post COVID-19 when streaming became a new dominant form of movie watching, the floodgates of scrappy little indies have been burst wide open with more than a few of them going into release online only rather than physical media.  While the ongoing industry changes continue to affect the film industry as well as the consumer, they have ushered in a wealth of movies that were previously held back by studio tentpole obstacles like summer movies or big mainstream releases.  With renewed interest in the viral outbreak thriller in the wake of the pandemic, tiny sci-fi/horror movies have been appearing on streaming more frequently involving the will to live freely in the world versus sacrificing your livelihood for the good of a greater cause.  The latest addition to this growing trend of tightly budgeted regional post-COVID streamers is the Portland, Oregon shot writing-directing debut of John Rosman with New Life.

After needle dropping Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone on the soundtrack (an act repeated throughout the film), we find a bloodied and bruised young woman named Jessica (Hayley Erin) skulking around a neighborhood poised at the Pacific Northwest border intending to flee into Canada.  What she is running from and why is yet to be seen.  Running in tandem with her journey is world weary dying agent Elsa (Sonya Wagner) who finds herself tasked with tracking down Jessica with the goal of apprehending and returning her to a state of captivity.  As time goes on through a myriad of flashbacks and/or nightmares dreamt, we learn some kind of Cabin Fever viral outbreak involving a dog let loose a flesh-eating zombifying strain transforming Jessica into an unknowing carrier.  With both women’s respective clocks ticking, the dying pair find themselves on a cat-and-mouse chase hunt as innocent bystanders who encounter Jessica see themselves transformed into rotting monsters 28 Days Later style.

Structurally similar to David Cronenberg’s Rabid with its episodic narrative of an infected escapee unaware of the epidemic she is spreading through regional Canada as people trying to be good Samaritans end up dead or diseased, New Life while obviously a thin indie with occasional jump scares is startlingly somber with both women racing each other to death.  Despite the tightness of the production, the film looks nice in scope 2.35:1 beautifully capturing the Oregon mountains by Satanic Panic cinematographer Mark Evans and the soundtrack by Milli Vanilli composers Mondo Boys ranges from abrasive electronic scares to Sigur Ros-inspired emotional swellings of sound.  While an ensemble piece, New Life basically boils down to two central characters with Hayley Erin exuding childlike innocence and naivete while Sonya Wagner as the aged dying agent hobbling around with her cane often slipping on a weak-ankle harbors startlingly involved emotional weathers with her sunken sad eyes and at times weary voice.

Given a limited theatrical run before going onto streaming via indie outfit Brainstorm Media in 4K digital, New Life isn’t anything extraordinary but the performances are both good and there’s a modicum of emotional thunder in this regional thriller.  When it isn’t showing off the beautiful mountainous countryside of Oregon, it spends a good amount of wading through neighborhoods in what could be characterized broadly as small-town American.  Yes we have absolutely seen this kind of film before and with how things are going in the post-COVID streaming verse we’re likely to see many more down the line.  Still, cinematic reckoning with one of the world’s most difficult recent chapters is a step in the right direction and perhaps down the line we’ll get a much more polished and fully fledged version of this concept.  

--Andrew Kotwicki