The urgency with which doomed junkie writer Donald Goines pumped out his remorseless crime novels once prompted the comment that he “wrote fiction the way other people package meat.” Luckily, in the case of Ernest Dickerson’s thoughtful take on Goines’s Never Die Alone, the comparison doesn’t apply.
Tyro screenwriter James Gibson wisely sidesteps Goines’s clunky dialogue and shaky characterization in favor of the unsparing assessment of crime at the heart of the writer’s oeuvre. DMX plays King David, a small-time dealer who tries to make amends with a dope kingpin (Clifton Powell) he once ripped off. His plan goes south thanks to a loose end, and David winds up mortally wounded in the company of a would-be writer (David Arquette) who haunts his old hood. The latter half of the film alternates between the repercussions of King David’s death and flashbacks courtesy of his taped autobiography.
Dickerson does an admirable job of weaving the story’s various threads without sacrificing its fatalistic momentum, and his grasp of visual irony even surpasses onetime mentor Spike Lee’s. Matthew Libatique’s alternately murky and washed-out cinematography keeps things from getting too generic, but ultimately it is Goines’s insider’s perspective that elevates Never Die Alone. There’s something refreshing about a pulp drama that turns on the notion that redemption is a sucker’s fantasy. That knowledge may not have saved Goines, but it informs Dickerson’s adaptation and results in stellar neo-noir.