YOU CANNOT KILL DAVID ARQUETTE is one of the best films of the year and possibly one of the most brilliant documentaries made. To be fair, there’s some caveats to that statement. Firstly, 2020 has been weird for movies — titles have been pushed back, some have been interrupted in production, and more. Secondly, YOU CANNOT KILL DAVID ARQUETTE is very intelligently crafted by being both a compelling story and by (possibly) using the same tricks employed by the industry it is exploring.
Every documentary is subjective in some manner — even if it’s a static camera capturing one location, the positioning of the camera and choice of location are intentional and thus evoke responses from those watching (even if it’s almost imperceptible). Celebrated documentaries tend to involve a lot of editing to create a more satisfying story, or to emphasize a particular emotion/fact, or withhold information until it is most impactful. YOU CANNOT KILL DAVID ARQUETTE is no different in that regard, but there is a lingering question about the extent to which this story is being altered.
Directors David Darg and Price James profile the life of David Arquette. The youngest child of a family of artists that grew up on a commune, Arquette was a rising indie film actor before being sidelined into mostly comic schtick. (A lot of this typecasting is laid at the feet of the SCREAM franchise in this documentary, which may change people’s perception of the upcoming SCREAM 5) But the major blow to his career was due to his work in READY TO RUMBLE. A vanity project for WCW, Arquette battled various actual wrestlers in the movie to help his idol reclaim his dream.
As promotion for READY TO RUMBLE, Arquette was brought into WCW’s live shows and won the championship belt. This was a bridge too far for fans that accepted twin undead brothers and parseltongue villains. Audiences turned on WCW and Arquette especially. He became a joke to many people, the match was considered the worst of all time, and acting roles quickly dried up. YOU CANNOT KILL DAVID ARQUETTE finds Arquette plagued by the fact that people still hate him for his part in that debacle — and that he’s never been taken seriously in most capacities.
The documentary chronicles his substance abuse, various health conditions (including depression and cardiac issues), balancing family with dreams, and figuring out where he fits in. Is he just a goofball? Is there redemption in the squared circle or is that just another place for him to embarrass himself?
YOU CANNOT KILL DAVID ARQUETTE is so affecting because it marries an underdog story with a true sense of existential despair. Through various situations, Arquette gets his ass kicked by different wrestlers; ignored and heckled by fans alike; humiliated into having to audition for parts despite being in the business for so long; dedicate himself to training only to go on a bender and seemingly trash all of his progress. Against all these odds, Arquette keeps getting up and keeps at it, determined to pay his dues and prove himself a genuine talent.
That last bit is one of the most palpable parts of YOU CANNOT KILL DAVID ARQUETTE. His acting career stalled out — yet all of the wrestling people see him as a Hollywood celebrity stepping into their world as some sort of joke. He isn’t accepted in either world, and thus exists in this in-between zone. This is even reflected in the décor around his house: oversized chairs and tennis rackets as he takes care of his own children and worries about various health concerns. Being zany with his family one minute then talking wistfully about the freedom and abandon of being a kid — when he adored wrestling superstars and was still able to dream of what the future would bring. Arquette has self-destructive tendencies while striving to be better; he wants to be taken seriously while being a wacky guy; he wants to be embraced by people but not if it’s as some ironic joke.
What makes Darg and James’ documentary brilliant is that YOU CANNOT KILL DAVID ARQUETTE is certainly (at least) what the pro-wrestlers would call a “worked shoot.” That is to say, parts of it are earnest and real while other scenes are absolutely staged. For example, going to Mexico to meet with wrestler (and READY TO RUMBLE co-star) Diamond Dallas Page may have been part of the plan; finding Page in the jungles doing yoga on a rock? That seems eccentric at best.
This extends into how various events come about — certain matches that are lined up, surprising events that happen to be caught on film, sudden disillusionment, etc. It’s completely possible that it’s all real, albeit with some exaggeration heightened through editing. It’s also possible that the majority is pre-planned and set-up with a story structure. If it’s all real, it’s exceptional and brutal, with an emotional honesty that will touch most audiences. If it’s all fake, then it’s composed in such a way that it’s hard to discern and thus is one of the best crafted films whose fraudulence is incredibly hard to point out. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.
But maybe that just means YOU CANNOT KILL DAVID ARQUETTE reflects pro-wrestling — yes, the outcome is already known going into the match, but the wrestlers have to work with each other to plan moves, and the pain they experience with each hit and fall is genuine agony that will linger with people long after the show has ended. In other words, no matter which scenario is the “truth” behind the documentary, it doesn’t matter because each option reveals a different type of intelligence, artistry, and vulnerability that is admirable and completely unique.
Pro-wrestling is a huge industry with an incredibly sordid history (and present) and is also derided by many who write it off as fake or spectacle for morons. Within that world lies a ton of talent, ingenuity, dedication, pain, creativity, strength, and heart that is easily overlooked due to the spandex and gimmickry. David Arquette is a great mirror to pro-wrestling. He’s been dismissed by many and yet within him is something impressive that wants to prove everyone wrong, yearns to be accepted, and needs to feel loved — even if costs him his sanity or his life.
YOU CANNOT KILL DAVID ARQUETTE is a thoroughly engaging film that doesn’t require any familiarity with wrestling or Arquette’s career. Old school WCW fans and people going in completely cold will both be engrossed by this movie. David Darg and Price James expertly document a feeling of helplessness, of living in a liminal state that prevents people from belonging to any world, and the constant setbacks that make it easy to pack away dreams in pursuit of something practical and safe. It is inspiring and heartbreaking that will leave viewers feeling like not only do they have a better appreciation for David Arquette but they may also have better insight into themselves, too.