Courtesy of Hot Docs

Review: Dead Man’s Switch: A Crypto Mystery

Hot Docs 2021

6 mins read

Dead Man’s Switch: a crypto mystery
(Canada, 78 min.)
Dir. Sheona McDonald
Program: Systems Down


The rise of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies after the 2008 financial crisis ushered in a new era for financial trading. Creating a financial Wild West of sorts, where anyone who understood blockchain technology could start their own digital saloon, the boom proved to be very profitable for individuals like Gerald Cotten. One of the founders of QuadrigaCX, Canada’s largest exchange for buying and selling cryptocurrency, Cotten was once viewed as a visionary in the realm of virtual money. This all changed after his sudden death at age 30 when QuadrigaCX users found themselves unable to access their funds, over 200 million in cryptocurrency. Sheona McDonald’s latest documentary Dead Man’s Switch a crypto mystery examines the rise and fall of the crypto giant to better understand how such a large sum of money could be loss in the digital ether.

While the news of Cotten’s death came as a shock to QuadrigaCX’s customers, what caused the biggest tremor in the crypto community was the reports that, according to his widow, he ran his company from a single laptop on which only he had access. Once the story started to gain national traction, it became apparent that the company’s structure and practices were as shady as the events surrounding Cotten’s demise. Speaking to QuadrigaCX users, several of whom lost their life savings as well as journalists and cryptocurrency experts, McDonald uncovers a tangled web of greed, excess and corruption that was able to thrive with no checks and balances at all.

Following the numerous breadcrumbs, McDonald shows that Cotten’s lack of instituting a “dead man’s switch,” which would have automatically unlocked access to users’ funds in case of an emergency, was merely one in a long list of suspicious things about QuadrigaCX. The company had experienced several issues leading up to its founder’s tragedy. There were complaints that customers were experiencing problems withdrawing funds, and the company was losing money as the 2018 cryptocurrency balloon was rapidly losing air.

As several individuals note in the documentary, the biggest question that everyone struggles to answer is, where is the money? Did ex-Quadriga co-founder Michael Patryn, who years earlier served time for identity theft under the name of Omar Dhanan, play a role? Did Cotten use his extensive knowledge of blockchain technology to pull off a digital sleight of hand like a trained magician? While McDonald’s film makes a compelling case for the most logical explanation for the missing funds, one steeped in criminal activity, one’s engagement in the central mystery will depend on one’s view of how the evidence is presented.

Dead Man’s Switch may contain an intriguing mystery on the inside, but it is a challenge at times to look past the film’s flawed exterior. While McDonald effectively incorporates animation to explain complicated theories, such as how one would use cryptocurrency to launder money, the use of re-enactments is unnecessarily distracting. In presenting both the archival footage and the re-enactments as YouTube style videos, which the viewer is virtually deciding to play, McDonald unintentionally backs herself into a corner. Having to constantly differentiate between “real video” and “recreated”, via labels in the top left-hand corner of the screen, is distracting.

This visual approach also brings into question the choices of which elements of the story are worthy of the re-enactment treatment. It may be an amusing, if peculiar, side note that Cotten left $100,000 for his two Chihuahuas in his will, but one does not need a visualization of him walking the dogs to emphasize this. Considering how bizarre the overall story is, it would have been more impactful if those moments were used to further explain the steps and tools that could prevent the money from disappearing in the first place. Several people in the documentary make references to the need for stronger regulations and enforcement for crypto trading, but McDonald never delves deep into how such a reform can be achieved.

While McDonald’s film does not crackle with the tension of a tightly constructed whodunnit, Dead Man’s Switch: a crypto mystery serves as a cautionary tale of the dangers of fast money. For a digital financial market established for its transparency, there is still plenty of fog around cryptocurrency and who is really controlling the money.

Dead Man’s Switch premieres at Hot Docs 2021.

Courtney Small is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic and co-host of the radio show Frameline. He has contributed to That Shelf, Leonard Maltin, Cinema Axis, In the Seats, and Black Girl Nerds. He is the host of the Changing Reels podcast and is a member of the Toronto Film Critics Association, Online Film Critics Society and the African American Film Critics Association.

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