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The Overlook Film Festival 2024 Review - DEAD MAIL

Dead Mail review
A synth wizard is abducted by an obsessed audiophile.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Joe DeBoer, Kyle McConaghy

Starring: Sterling Macer, Jr., John Fleck, Susan Priver, Micki Jackson, Tomas Boykin, Nick Heyman

Dead Mail poster

In the 1980s, American TV was filled with detective shows, and the protagonists weren't always actual detectives. Any profession could be reworked into a procedural drama. Take for example, Lottery!, which revolved around a lottery company employee's efforts to track down the winners of unclaimed prizes. It doesn't sound like the most riveting basis for a show, and yet it was as flamboyant and over the top as any '80s media.

The opening act of Joe DeBoer and Kyle McConaghy's 1980s set thriller Dead Mail plays like the pilot episode for a similar show, this one focussing on a profession I have to admit I've never given any thought to – a lost letter investigator.

The job is held by Jasper (Tomas Boykin), a middle-aged man who plies his trade in the basement of the Peoria, Illinois central post office. DeBoer and McConaghy's vision of this institution is significantly detached from reality, with a series of underground corridors that make the building seem like the Pentagon. Huddled away in a subterranean office is Jasper, who spends his days following clues to track down the destination of misplaced, or "dead" mail, sometimes with the help of Renée (Nick Heyman), a Norwegian computer wiz similarly bunkered across the Atlantic.

Dead Mail review

DeBoer and McConaghy show us an example of Jasper's work as he tracks down the intended recipient of a necklace lost in the mail. As it's the 1980s, his investigation is very much of the analog variety as he scours phone books and maps and calls the met office for recent precipitation reports. We're simply watching a schlubby middle-aged man working at a desk, but it's thoroughly gripping. It helps that Boykin has a quiet charisma in the role that's reminiscent of Morgan Freeman in Seven.

The necklace isn't central to the plot, though it does play a key role late on. Rather the film revolves around a bloody handwritten note that finds its way onto Jasper's desk. In the prologue we see how it gets there, as a bound man crawls across a lawn and deposits it in a post box before another man pulls him back inside the house.

Dead Mail review

The film's second act is devoted to detailing the events that lead to this incident, and it's something akin to Herbie Hancock being abducted by the villain of a Thomas Harris novel. At a synthesizer convention, keyboard wiz Josh (Sterling Macer Jr.) is approached by a well-spoken enthusiast, Trent (John Fleck), who offers to become Josh's benefactor in developing a new instrument. The two men get along like a house on fire at first thanks to their mutual love of electronically recreating analog instruments, and their early bonding over '80s tech is similar to the geeky dynamic found in Andrew Bujalski's similarly off-kilter '80s-set oddity Computer Chess. There's a fetishisation of v/u meters, circuit boards and fanzines, and as a lover of vintage audio equipment I have to admit I felt like I was simultaneously being mocked and pandered to.

Things take a dark turn when Josh sells his prototype to a Japanese company, leading to accusations of betrayal from Trent, who knocks him out and locks him in his basement, forcing him to continue working on the instrument in a delightfully nerdy twist on Stephen King's Misery.

Dead Mail review

Dead Mail plays with the homophobia that often blighted thrillers of the '80s and '90s with their queer-coded villains. It's made explicitly clear that Trent has a crush on Josh, and there's an uncomfortable racial element as the black synth wiz seems to stir memories of white weirdo Trent's unrequited college romance with a basketball player. Trent is clearly bonkers, but his queerness isn't used as a cheap target in the way it most likely would have been had the film actually been made in the '80s. Rather it casts a melancholy fog over the film. There's something deeply tragic about Trent's affection for Josh, summed up by his pathetic attempt to replicate Josh's favourite meal of chicken teriyaki by serving what amounts to a few chicken tenders atop a bed of rice. We're constantly reminded that this is an era when being a middle-aged gay man often meant you were condemned to a lonely existence. All three of Dead Mail's middle-aged central characters are lonely in their own ways. It's rare in any genre to see male loneliness portrayed so vividly; you certainly don't expect to find it in a blackly comic thriller like this. Where else do you find middle-aged African-American actors cast in the lead roles of an absurdist thriller?

Dead Mail opens with a fake intro designed to make us think we've just popped a VHS tape into our player. Any worries that we're in for the sort of cheap '80s nostalgia that's so popular today are soon dispelled. None of the clichéd signifiers of the era are present here – no leg-warmers, Rubik's cubes or BMX bikes. Instead we get a film that's mired in the real life drabness of that decade, all muted colours and terrible fashion choices. If you stumbled onto Dead Mail by accident you'd be forgiven for believing you had come across an early episode of Unsolved Mysteries. And yet for all its gritty realism, Dead Mail is peppered with comedy, often the result of tweaking that realism ever so slightly off balance. Dead Mail looks like it takes place in the 1980s MidWest, but some things just aren't quite right. The best way I can describe it is oxymoronically, as grounded absurdism. It's often mystifying, but always gripping, and it's one of the most distinctive pieces of work to emerge from American indie cinema in recent years. I can't wait to see what these filmmakers do next.

Dead Mail screens at The Overlook Film Festival from April 5th.

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