As a film buff, you’re always lying in wait for that one film that comes along each year — and it is usually just one — to knock you on your ass in completely unexpected fashion. I’m not talking about the hyped-to-the-last prestige films and festival-lauded arthouse fare whose quality is hardly surprising. You know the new Coen brothers movie is going to be good. But then there’s that one cheap-looking movie you check out as a lark that turns out to be better than anything you’ve seen in weeks or even months. In my case, the most recent such shocker turned out to be He Never Died, Jason Krawczyk’s horror-comedy about an immortal who’s tired of overachieving and decides to hole up and play bingo for a few decades instead. It’s a micro-budget Canadian indie that I only began watching because it stars everyone’s favorite punk philosopher Henry Rollins as said immortal—also a cannibal—but finished up in awe of on the basis of just how unique an entry it is in the vast canon of movies about the perpetually deathless. It’s a cult classic in the making.
You can almost hear the elevator pitch Krawczyk must have delivered to get this made: Taken but if Liam Neeson’s character were literally supernatural instead of just appearing to be. Rollins plays Jack, a taciturn misanthrope who lives in a dingy apartment in an anonymous North American city, whiling away his days at a local diner and church bingo games. That joyless routine is suddenly interrupted when a coterie of gangsters takes an interest in him and his estranged daughter shows up at his doorstep. Naturally, it’s not long before the former extend their interest to the latter and decide to use her as bait. Brutal recriminations follow.
The most recent such shocker turned out to be He Never Died, Jason Krawczyk’s horror-comedy about an immortal who’s tired of overachieving and decides to hole up and play bingo for a few decades instead.
While that synopsis could describe a thousand generic potboilers, the difference here is in the execution and world-building. It becomes clear early on that Jack is not human and, over the course of the film, we get little dribbles of information about who he might be and just how old he is. But Krawczyk keeps things oblique, letting the viewer’s imagination do the work for him, while feeding it plenty of grist for the mill. And unlike so many po-faced exaltations of endlessly cool entities who live forever, He Never Died never loses sight of its dry-as-a-bone sense of humor. Jack’s defining characteristic is that he’s just so bored of the world, and not in the romantic and jaded fashion of many a goth vampire protagonist. He’s done and seen everything. And having done and seen everything, he’s over it all. When someone hits him in the face, he reacts by saying “Don’t.”
A lot of the film’s success is down to its witty screenplay but none of it could work without Rollins’ distinctive personality. The former Black Flag frontman has developed an eccentric public image that’s equal parts testosterone, punk-rock rage and intellectual seriousness. He leverages all that here, ramping up the stoicism levels to mine maximum comedic value from the contrast between his deadpan moroseness and the essential ridiculousness of the proceedings. Rollins’ stony mug isn’t self-serious posturing but, rather, a highly self-aware and extremely canny subversion of years of image-building. It’s the best gag in a film full of them. Where the story of a father going after his kidnapped daughter has always been characterized by histrionics in every possible telling, Jack ambles through his rescue operation like a man assuming his burden with tired reluctance. Here’s a being that’s been entirely defeated by the exhausting prospect of co-existing with the human race for millennia. Rollins’ expression of that exhaustion through the deployment of a peculiar charisma-by-way-of-its-absence is the foundation of this film, eliciting frequent laughter while never quite undercutting the weight of the character’s loneliness and misanthropy. So perhaps my comparison to Taken is a little iffy given that for all its bursts of violence, this is not an action movie. It’s an existential comedy of the blackest sort.