King David (DMX) lies in a coffin, embedded in white satin, his Armani suit perfectly creased, his arms crossed over his chest. “We reap what we sow,” his voiceover intones while the camera pulls out and circles him. “That’s what the Bible says.” Beat. “Payback’s a motherfucker. I think James Brown said that.”
King’s funeral opens Never Die Alone, but his throbbing self-consciousness drives it. James Gibson’s screenplay, based on one of Donald Goines’ pulp novels, has King inflict every sort of evil a man might imagine. King is a pimp, a dealer, a gangster and a bully, hateful towards women, coldly vicious toward men. (Goines was himself a baleful character, thief, heroin addict, murder victim at 36, currently resurrected in allusions by hiphop artists.) As King recounts posthumously, he returned to New York from Los Angeles after 10 years of self-exile, with a plan in mind to right the many wrongs he inflicted on most everyone he knew. It’s telling that the only people he feels compelled to reimburse are men, but most every man in his retro-noiry world espouses such casual misogyny.
King’s search for redemption is figured as a distinctively secular spirituality: he travels with a Bible that he’s hollowed out in order to store his own audiotapes, dictated while driving east and comprised of sordid tales and foul language. Perpetually dissatisfied and bad-tempered (his daunting demeanor enhanced by X’s distinctive growl), King’s real problem—the one that seals his fate, as it were—is that his decision to settle his earthly debts comes too late. His former associates, at least as treacherous and untrusting as he is, aren’t about to forgive him, no matter how much interest he offers on the money he owes (he’s quaintly convinced that his quarter of a million dollars is something of a fortune). These include the mightily colorful kingpin of everything (heroin, women, and apparently, smoky club singers), Moon (Clifton Powell) and his young henchman, Mike (Michael Ealy, popular pretty boy of the Barbershop movies).
The latter carries a special grudge against King, having to do with a big old scar on his cheek, which he touches ominously, head lowered, whenever King’s name comes up. It’s not hard to guess what Mike’s grudge is about, but what the film lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in grim, aggressive style, its embrace of its sensational literary roots. Directed by Ernest R. Dickerson (Spike Lee’s former cinematographer and director of Juice and Our America), and shot by Matthew Libatique on “special stock,” the film a peculiar blend of harshness and darkness. Shadows seep through every crimson interior King enters; even the film’s flashbacks to sunny California are oversaturated with gloomy expectation, permeating the grainy color.
These flashbacks are generated by those audiotapes, which King bequeaths to the last man to see him alive, Paul (David Arquette). Hanging out at the Blue Room to soak up thuggish local “color,” Paul’s a wannabe journalist looking for “the story” that will put him over. When he sees King go down in a knife fight outside the bar, Paul rushes him to the hospital in his big old pimp car, Holy Bible on the passenger seat and weapon in the glove compartment. When the doctor brings the bad news that King has died, he also says Paul’s the recipient, via King’s deathbed declaration, of all the dead man’s worldly goods: the car, his heavy gold crucifix, and the tapes that he’s stashed inside the Bible.
The story King tells apparently fulfills all of Paul’s fantasies of thug life, from the movie-inspired catch-phrasing (“Enter the motherfuckin’ dragon,” breathes King, as he stands on a threshold) to Moon’s desirous mantra: “What else is there? Money, pussy, and money.” Paul’s more than ready to consume this tale, living in an uptown apartment decorated with Wu Tang and Miles posters, and dating an upscale black girl (Aisha Tyler). She finally dumps him when he misses their anniversary dinner in order to take King to the hospital. Tired of what she calls his “whole slumming thing,” she cuts deeper still, accusing him of using her as “part of your research.” Paul doesn’t even bother to talk her out of leaving (apparently, he can’t help himself: “I need to find out how this man died,” he whines). Frankly, girlfriend’s assessment sounds about right.
Paul’s mini-meltdown rather pales in comparison to the film’s other major narratives, namely, King’s excursion to L.A. and Mike’s vengeance against Moon (whose contract on Mike results in the inadvertent murder of Mike’s schoolgirl sister, another plot point that comes as a ferocious non-surprise). The beachy scenes have King picking up a pretty blond actor, Janet (Jennifer Sky), whose coworkers on a Baywatch-y tv series provide King with a ready set of users. Their addictions make him a fortune selling junk and reinforce his general sense that everyone is weak, pathetic, and beneath contempt, including Janet, whose heroin habit is the result of his switching up her coke. As he tells it, for the eager reader Paul, no woman can resist him.
Given Paul’s own predicament, it’s easy to see how this appeal to rage and resentment works. He begins to see in King a kind of “nobility,” a self-recognition that elevates him above common crook. This is, of course, the sort of ominous self-consciousness that Goines portrays in so many of his anti-heroes, men who inhabit a bleak underworld and commit all forms of mayhem, yet comprehend themselves and their environments in stark moral terms.
King’s next and most visibly pathetic victim is Juanita (Reagan Gomez-Preston). When King first spots her, he narrates, she’s serving drinks and going to college, or, as he puts it, “Everything a man could want, beautiful, intelligent, uncorrupted.” Predictably, he has to turn this situation around; that is, he notes on spotting her, “I promised myself that she’d be mine.” His seduction involves various corruptions, from unleashing her passions (“They’re all freaks to begin with”) to impressing her mama with his claims to an “exports” business, to, at last and apparently inevitably, exchanging Juanita’s coke stash (which he’s provided) for heroin. Pathologically incapable of intimacy, King can only destroy anyone who shows vulnerability or desire, or worse, as is the case with Juanita, disrespect. By the time she’s turned into a runny-nosed, shattered junkie, he’s way past caring.
Looking at her so willing to debase herself for a hit, King is reminded of another woman he ruined, back in NYC. At this point, as he tells it, he’s had enough of his own damage. As Paul listens avidly, even obsessively, trying to find an answer, King heads back east and the film picks up where it began, this time framed by Paul’s creepy captivation. This is the end of King and the film’s most devastating revelation, that his incredible story, so enthralling and revolting, is produced in its reception.