The thriller "'Til Death Do Us Part" takes a no-holds-barred approach in tackling the issue of intimate partner violence. But the style of director Christopher B. Stokes ("You Got Served") tries to ride a fine line between serious and soapy, and ultimately it fails to strike that balance and only comes off as seriously soapy.
"'Til Death Do Us Part" seems to be lightly inspired by "Gone Girl," with a story around a seemingly perfect marriage that suddenly turns toxic and abusive. But while "Gone Girl" brought a sense of acid irony and thought-provoking ambiguity to the tale, "Til Death" paints this story in the broadest of strokes, eschewing nuance and character development to focus on a rather predictable plot.
Annie Ilonzeh ("All Eyez on Me") stars as Madison, the beautiful new bride of Michael (Stephen Bishop). Their life is magazine-cover perfect, in a sweeping modern manse equipped with a white baby grand piano. The only trouble in paradise? Madison is baby crazy while Michael would prefer to wait.
Somehow, this disagreement over the baby unleashes Michael's previously unseen narcissistic psychopath. A few dropped hints during chats with their pals plant the seeds, but it seems as if he turns on a dime and morphs drastically into a physically abusive monster. Though it may come as a shock to the audience, it's not all that far from the actual behavior of abusers like this.
Ilonzeh carries the film as Madison, a task that unfortunately may be a class above her current fighting weight. Her performance is often extreme and unmodulated, swinging wildly in either direction, especially in her dramatic scenes with Michael. She's far more at ease with Taye Diggs, playing Alex, a new neighbor with whom she seeks solace.
It's unfortunate that the abused woman storyline feels so well-trodden. In critiquing the stereotypical formula that makes "'Til Death Do Us Part" feel so unoriginal, it gives one pause to consider why this tale feels so conventional. We've seen it so often, in movies, TV, the news. It seems like punching down to criticize a film depicting this unfortunately frequent real-life event, especially when the movie ends on stats about domestic violence and a call to action to those who need help.
But the film itself must be critiqued. "'Til Death," though following an uncomplicated storyline, manages to completely bungle the timeline of Madison and Alex's relationship, featuring a montage of loving doctor appointments and Lamaze class outings before the two even seemingly have a first kiss or ask each other about their pasts. It's profoundly weird.
Diggs and supporting actress Robinne Lee, who plays Madison's best friend, Chelsea, bring an ease to the onscreen dynamic, which is so stilted between Ilonzeh and Bishop. That awkward artificiality works once we understand what lies beneath the picture-perfect veneer, but it doesn't make for great performances throughout.
"'Til Death Do Us Part" takes on the admirable task of depicting life with an abuser and the very real obstacles to starting over. But its stereotypical writing, which errs on the side of cheesy and hackneyed, rather than deep and psychologically rich, dooms "'Til Death."
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News service film critic.
’Til Death Do Us Part'
Rating: PG-13, for thematic elements involving domestic abuse, violence, some sexuality and language
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes
Playing: In general release