★★★★★ out of ★★★★★
After failing to crowd-fund their board game “Murder Bury Win”, three young game designers get the opportunity of a lifetime to present their ideas to a scion of the game industry and finally get the big break they have been looking for. After initial fun and games, their dream pitch turns into a nightmare with tragic (and comic) consequences. Great characters + unique concept + greed motives = cinema gold!
Directed by Michael Lovan
Murder Bury Win is a movie after my heart. There is concurrently a golden age of board games and a golden age of independent genre films going at the same time. Two of my great loves merged together. This movie combines the two seamlessly, and with great love and understanding of what makes both great. When I read the summary of the film, I thought it might appeal to me, and it exceeded those expectations by a mile. It is going to be playing at San Francisco’s Another Hole in the Head Film Festival, which this year, like all of the other festivals, is streaming its full roster of films. But, this will not be the first festival it has been to, and it has already racked up 16 wins on the festival circuit.
I will concede that this movie is a bit horror adjacent, and is more of a crime/comedy outing, but there is enough tension and bloodshed to help headline a genre festival. It is a story about greed, innovation, ethics, murder, and nerd culture. What’s not to like? The characters are richly textured, and the plot weaves you in and out of both half-baked schemes and well-considered plans as the characters try and salvage their dreams from what looks to be an impossible situation, forced upon them by a manipulative man of power.
Our three main protagonists are introduced to us playing their own game of “Murder Bury Win”, rolling dice, playing cards, and arguing about rules minutiae. Chris (Mikelen Walker) is the brains behind the game. He works at a game shop and aspires to be a game designer to match the great V.V. Stubbs (Craig Cackowski) someday. Adam (Erich Lane) is the loose screw of the trio. He’s a likable lazy huckster and a salesman, and a rules pusher. Barrett (Henry Alexander Kelly) is the conscience of the group. He would rather play cooperative games than competitive ones and will pick the most amusing strategy rather than the cutthroat option. The introductory sequence has some very funny bits of the dudes as they are presented as their representative pawns in the game, as if LARPing (look that up if you have to), amusingly freezing to indicate that their turn is over; a fantastic visual trick that had the game player in me hooked.
They have been trying to crowd-source fund their game, which they believe to be brilliant. It’s a “how to get away with murder” game, that allows you to pick your murder weapon (which might even include a corn cob or a fingernail clipper) and how to dispose of the body without getting caught. It’s a great concept but NOBODY is contributing to the cause, and eventually, their game fails to garner enough bids to get funded.
Soon, when the three of them are hanging out at the game store, a mysterious patron calls them and invites them to pitch their game to him. This mystery man lives out in the mountains in a remote cabin and threatens them with a bear trap before inviting them in. To their astonishment, the man who has invited them to his cabin is none other than V.V. Stubbs, and after some initial very awkward conversations, he offers to play their game and offer them suggestions on how to improve it.
For the game players out there, it was important that the pre-game preparations were also given real weight, and brilliantly, some of these board game plots eventually tie into the movie plots. The four of them have a wildly good time playing the game. At the end of their session, Stubbs gives a pretty solid critique of their game, but he is impressed enough that he offers to pay them for the rights to the game. After a round of celebration, it is revealed that after he pays these guys, he will claim full ownership of the game, and they will only get credit as play-testers. The money he is offering is merely OK, and not enough to allow the fellas to create a gaming nest-egg, and they balk.
This is the hinge point of the movie. Where expectations are built up, dreams are within reach, and then snatched away. A crucial decision needs to be made, and the young men are faced with a huge dilemma, and they are not in agreement as to how they want to proceed. Take the money, and sacrifice their life’s work? Or walk with limited prospects of success. And, lest we forget, this is a game about how to get away with murder.
I will stop the synopsis at this point so as not to spoil the plot. After the hinge, it becomes a very amusing and very tense movie, full of bloodshed, tension, empathy, and bravado. Full credit to the entire cast. All of them bring richly nuanced elements to the characters, and you feel you know these guys. Cackowski has a plastic face that can be played for laughs or intimidation, he’s a wonderful antagonist, and his story is a fantastic counterpoint to those of Chris, Adam, and Barrett. Given the right distribution, this has the potential to make stars out of these guys, perhaps more than any indie film I’ve seen this year.
It is a shame that this movie does not get a big theater release, as this would be a huge crowd-pleaser. There are groan out loud moments, “Oh Shit!” moments, and wildly silly moments that would be great with a full festival audience. Michael Lovan placed a very effective internal clock to this movie, which allows for plenty of plotting and scheming, but upping the ante with each little plot twist and making the ultimate success of the characters gradually trickier. In a way the story plot functions like their game, and that’s brilliant.
It is a very cleverly written and edited film. The movie had to negotiate using three likable protagonists and force them into multiple ethical dilemmas, and with a foil who could prove to be their greatest ally or a man who could ruin it all for them. The motivations and perspectives of these characters bend in the movie. In some ways, it feels like a heist movie and wondering if the heroes are going to fulfill their dreams or die trying.
Lovan and co-writer John Hart graced the movie with a hugely appropriate ending. One that is imperfect for the characters, but perfect for the story. And, the title of the movie has a wicked irony to it, that the script hammers home in the closing shots. Rosebud.
Murder Bury Win is not rated, but it would probably merit a light R rating, but it certainly isn’t hugely gory and it would be suitable for teenagers. If you are a board game player, this is an absolute must watch. Shoot, if you are a movie fan, this is a must-watch as well.