I Am the Hand of Death (Chris Gervais, 2020)

Reviewed by Avant-Garde Film Index

I Am the Hand of Death by Chris Gervais seeks to eulogize – visually and aurally – three people who died violent, untimely deaths in their cement plant workplace.  Knowing little about the details of the event beyond what the film exposes, I am struck by the melancholia and also the resilience that define each of the segments about the victims and those they left behind.  Ultimately, the film is a fascinating study in how much a viewer can glean simply from the context and clues the filmmaker chooses to reveal.

The tension between whether we are watching stills or stillness is engaging.  The film starts with a camera scanning down a still image of an extreme long shot of a cement plant building, which reads majestically, like a NASA rocket preparing to launch into a brilliant blue sky.  We know, however, that it is a still because the puffs of smoke from the smokestack are static.  The editing demonstrates that Gervais has a good sense of timing and pacing, allowing the footage to breathe, letting the haunting score do a lot of the heavy lifting.

The central concern of the film is how to do justice to the three lives lost?  How to account for the lack of them?  A calculus emerges, the filmmaker interrogating each victim’s – presumably – home spaces in different and meaningful formal conceits.  The first segment is for Allison Moore, age 29.  Punctuated by ambient nature sounds, the film at this moment tries to catch up with Moore – almost as if we keep missing her as we move from room to room.  We begin with a lovely little tableau of a pair of jeans left to dry in the sun on a backyard laundry line, the pants balanced by a planter of succulents in the extreme right foreground of the frame (an optical illusion of sorts, visually playing with scale); the breeze moving through the trees periodically threatens to overexpose the image in a pleasing way.  We then cut to a series of domestic still lifes:  a ceramic sink of dirty dishes, a coffee pot flashing 12:00 on its digital clock while two cutlets left to defrost next to it slowly spoil, an unmade bed, laundry spilling out of an open dryer, etc., a sequence that ends on a long shot of a forlorn little cat staring out of the backdoor from the kitchen.

I Am the Hand of Death (Chris Gervais, 2020)

Justin Voisine, 31, is the subject of the second segment.  After the intertitle introducing him, we see a large red paper heart taped to a door; a reverse shot situates us in a child’s nursery.  Voisine clearly is missed by more than a solitary pet – a toddler and partner dominate now.  Electronic music plays as the two figures navigate their new lives without their loved one.  We eventually move from the nursery to the exterior of the home, where we see the woman and child sitting on the front stoop.  In what is perhaps the only significant camera movement in a film comprising mainly static images, we follow the boy as he toddles down the sidewalk and away from his mother.  The boy walks back in the reverse static shot, wandering off and then on the frame again, single-minded in his purpose to return to his mother – an elegant game of peekaboo that at once delights and distresses.

The final segment is Douglas Pelletier’s, 62.  A young man wearing a baseball cap (Pelletier’s grown son?) enters from the right to play the drum set in the center of the frame.  We then cut to a beauty of a shot – a disorienting sideview of a deer head trophy hanging on the wall.  All the while, the drums play on as we cut to different images of the home, inside and out.  Like a visual refrain, though, we keep returning to the drummer until this segment abruptly ends – the young man not allowed to finish.

I Am the Hand of Death (Chris Gervais, 2020)

The remainder of the film aptly feels like an intrusion; we want to return to the spaces we have lost and avoid the weight of reality, the past.  The edits speed up, the images of “evidence” – shell casings next to rulers, blood on a cement floor, a gun, the cement plant strewn with markers indicating where bullets presumably hit victims, blood pooling around cobblestones, handwritten reflections from the suspect, still photos from the crime scene of people upset, bodies living and dead – mount up and are shocking, sobering.  The sense-making contemporary newscast that the film’s soundtrack ends on is the final injustice, the human need to rationalize away violence – something that happens to others and not to us – a destructive force itself.  More honest and kind, perhaps, to recognize the senselessness of it all.

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