On animal instincts, communion with the dark, and the lo-fi artistry of Joel Potrykus
The Alchemist Cookbook Oscilloscope Laboratories
Director: Joel Potrykus
Screenplay: Joel Potrykus
Starring: Ty Hickson and Amari Cheatom
Not rated / 1 hour, 22 minutes / 1.85:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)
Do we chase the beast or does the beast chase us?
If you are the antihero of a Joel Potrykus movie, at least, its presence is an inevitability, one way or another. It will always be there, hovering, whether in pursuit or in wait, whether an internal demon or an external manifestation.
The distinction, in fact, doesn't even matter. His films orient themselves in a strange space between the conscious and subconscious, the psyche perpetually bleeding over into the physical, as if dreamed into material existence. There's a surreal incongruity to it, the way Potrykus' visual straightforwardness is broken by hallucinatory images of bestial menace. The mundane invaded by the id. In 2012's Ape, the quotidian existence of its low-level comedian protagonist was persistently disarmed by vaguely threatening appearances of someone dressed in a gorilla costume, and then later by a man dressed as the devil. The 2010 short Coyote was an experimental take on familiar notions of metamorphosis - man and beast coexisting within one vessel. And 2015's great Buzzard turned those ideas into a more daring abstraction, a study of a borderline sociopath whose daily existence is an act of willful retreat - even disappearance - from human civilization.
As mirrors - or, in light of Buzzard's brilliant closing shot sequence, live broadcasts - into his characters' souls, Potrykus' films are unusually in sync with their subjects. Movies that more or less take place in the minds of their protagonists are a dime a dozen, but these have a remarkable - and deceptive - psychological acuity. Potrykus relies on everyday light sources - natural sunlight, office fluorescents, nightclub spotlights - that give his images a naturalistic quality, and yet there is a subliminal psychological violence to those images. He's unafraid to be confrontational about it - he tends to hold his camera on figures and faces for significant unbroken stretches, refusing to look away from what is at times almost unbearably aggressive, humiliating, or malevolent.
And lingering always is that primal darkness, which in Potrykus' vocabulary is typically animalistic. His latest, The Alchemist Cookbook, is once again almost entirely about a single character - once again a twentysomething male - flirting with the devilish corners of his psyche. This time, though, Sean (Ty Hickson) is in pursuit - actively trying to conjure the devil, commune with it, as if trying to confront and wrestle with his own dark half. Potrykus' archetypal slacker with the heart of darkness is finally taking some initiative. The film's setting - the middle of the woods, far away from civilization - is not coincidental. Not just another isolated place, but one that distinctly makes the cries of the devil (once he finally makes his presence felt) evocative of the howls of wild animals that might spook you in the middle of the night. Bears, wolves, coyotes … demons?
A film like this one cuts beautifully against more familiar versions of fundamentally similar ideas and protagonists, which in American independent film are aplenty. The outwardly earnest "examinations" of turbulently alienated or socially stunted young men - the loners and outcasts we see so often, their development arrested, their social circles minute (if not nonexistent). As character studies, most of those films strike me as severely false, their attempts at sincerity masking a complete lack of interrogation or psychological insight. More often than not, the indie movie about the disaffected young man asks us to relate or feel sorry for him; it takes pains to reassure us that he's just misunderstood, and he's figuring it out, and all he needs is that one girl to appreciate him, and all will be well in a matter of time. Potrykus shares certain superficial similarities with that template and may very well be inspired by the same sense of existential unrest, but he is fearless in his approach. Buzzard, for example, was more in line with something like Taxi Driver than most of its contemporaries, only more nihilistic. Like fellow rising auteur Rick Alverson, he does not care if we like, pity or sympathize with his characters. He observes, and he projects, and together those observations and projections transform into strangely profound abstractions.
His lead actors are, of course, paramount to this effect. Usually, it's Joshua Burge (whose Buzzard performance was one of the very best of last year); this time, Ty Hickson takes the reigns, offering a different but wholly effective interpretation of this loner, his face a canvas of quiet anxiety. There's a certain softness to him - as opposed to Burge's aggressive anti-social enmity in Buzzard - and that vulnerability works wonders in moments when he gets closest to the darkness, closest to the communion that seems to have become his entire purpose.
Taking Sean as part of a continuum of Potrykus protagonists, there is an ecstatic boyishness to his attitude and lifestyle - the pyromania, unapologetic primal behavior, unearned confidence - that the films seem to argue are something of a naturally occurring state. For these young men, at least, it most certainly is. The permanent implications are immaterial. The Alchemist Cookbook is loose and shaggy and stripped-down; it is nakedly direct in its characterization and brazenly fixated on its simple ambitions. What's resonant about it is that, like its hero, it is wholeheartedly putting its soul on the line, reaching out toward an unknown, unsettling moral void. Potrykus is one of the most unique new voices in contemporary cinema because he's one of the rare few who can turn his entire narrative schema into a state of mind.