Thursday, May 23, 2024

“SASQUATCH SUNSET”

THE STORY – In the misty forests of North America, a family of Sasquatches—possibly the last of their enigmatic kind— embark on an absurdist, epic, hilarious, and ultimately poignant journey over the course of one year. These shaggy and noble giants fight for survival as they find themselves on a collision course with the ever-changing world around them.

THE CAST – Riley Keough, Jesse Eisenberg, Christophe Zajac-Denek & Nathan Zellner

THE TEAM – David Zellner (Director/Writer) & Nathan Zellner (Director)

THE RUNNING TIME – 89 Minutes


What can one possibly say about “Sasquatch Sunset,” the latest unclassifiable genre-bender from the Zellner Brothers? Even the most cursory description of the film tells prospective audience members all they need to know. And yet, no plot synopsis can come close to capturing the downright strange focus and tonal shifts that make the movie such a singular cinematic achievement. It is a film that attempts the same off-kilter mash-up of juvenile humor and adult pathos that has marked the work of another director duo, recent Oscar winners The Daniels, to more complex ends but with markedly less success.

We all know – well, the vast majority of us, anyway – that Sasquatches don’t exist. What “Sasquatch Sunset” presupposes is that, maybe, they do. The film follows a group of Sasquatches – mother (Riley Keough), father (Jesse Eisenberg), son (Christophe Zajac-Denek), and another of indeterminate relation to the other three (Nathan Zellner) – as they live through a year from Spring through Winter. We see everything they do, and that includes everything: we watch them eat, bathe, groom each other, wander through the woods, build shelter, dispense their bodily waste, and have sex. That’s all the film consists of: this group of Sasquatches living their lives, communicating with each other through grunts, howls, and hand gestures. What little plot exists is mostly there to tell a parable of humanity’s relationship to nature. That parable goes to some surprising places to make its point, but it’s far more satisfying than a straightforward narrative when viewed in this way.

Speaking of, the film’s narrative could charitably be called “meandering,” as it follows the Sasquatch family through a few days in each season so that we get a feel for what their life is like. At least one major plot development occurs in each season, and they all connect, but the path the film travels to make those connections is far from straightforward. When the Sasquatches are simply existing – picking bugs out of their hair, for example, or gathering plants to make shelter or tools – accompanied by The Octopus Project’s lovely pastoral score, the film achieves a kind of peaceful profundity by making you reflect on your own life and what it might be like to reconnect with nature. For long stretches, the film even feels like it’s about our progenitors, showing us what very early human life may have looked like. The scenes that create this feeling, however, are interrupted by moments of gross-out humor throughout the film, cutting right through the film’s beauty with a reminder that, yes, animals still shit in the woods, and yes, males of all species are led by their hormones. The first couple of times this happens, it’s unexpected and funny, but the more it happens, the less funny it gets. Perhaps in anticipation of this, the Zellners up the ante each time, increasing the amount we see in both volume and length of time. This doesn’t have the desired effect, though, mainly because, as the shocks escalate, so do the performances, which nearly causes the film to break.

In order for “Sasquatch Sunset” to work, you need to buy into the Sasquatches at every turn. During the film’s more over-the-top scenes, this becomes impossible due to the fact that the film suddenly feels more like a group of acting students doing an exercise in costumes they found buried in a basement. While the makeup never crosses into uncanny valley territory because of the detail that comes across in close-ups, it never entirely escapes the costume-like look in wide shots. Likewise, the performances exist in a state of contradictions: They’re remarkably believable in the subtle, quiet moments that make up the bulk of the film but feel amateurish whenever the actors are called upon to engage in the more outrageous material. As soon as Eisenberg and Zellner start animatedly grunting at each other, jumping up and down to express strong emotions and expelling waste from their bodies to make a point, the film becomes a funhouse mirror version of itself completely at odds with the warm, contemplative, and pastoral tone it exudes elsewhere. These two modes of storytelling can be combined to create something fresh and exciting. Still, the Zellners seem overly excited by the scatology on display, pushing it far past the point of hilarity to a place that just feels juvenile. These moments don’t sit well next to the film’s more serious moments, but the Zellners keep pushing them closer to the point where even the film’s most emotional scenes begin with what seems like a silly joke.

When the film works, though, it really works. Cinematographer Mike Gioulakis exploits the natural light as much as he can for some beautiful shot compositions that emphasize how small the Sasquatches are in the grand scheme of things. The lack of intelligible dialogue casts a spell, inviting the audience to lean in and pay close attention in a way that most films don’t. The actors all emote effectively through their eyes and body movements, especially Keough, who has the most outwardly emotional material. Even though the performances don’t always work, you really feel for the Sasquatches when something terrible happens to them. As the film gets (slightly) more plot-driven in the final act, it even builds up a good amount of tension around what will happen to them. That wouldn’t happen without an emotional connection to the characters, which the actors manage to do even from under all that makeup and bodily fluid.

At its best, “Sasquatch Sunset” achieves a level of profundity rarely seen in American cinema. Unfortunately, at its worst, it’s so overly impressed with its “daring” display of dirtiness that it becomes a prehistoric “Dumb & Dumber.” At the very least, there’s nothing else like it, and that alone makes it worth a watch.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Jesse Eisenberg and (especially) Riley Keough are fully committed to both humor and pathos in this strange and strangely poignant fable of man’s relationship with nature.

THE BAD - The tone is all over the place, and the contrast doesn’t always work in the film’s favor.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - Best Makeup and Hairstyling

THE FINAL SCORE - 7/10

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Dan Bayer
Dan Bayer
Performer since birth, tap dancer since the age of 10. Life-long book, film and theatre lover.

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>Jesse Eisenberg and (especially) Riley Keough are fully committed to both humor and pathos in this strange and strangely poignant fable of man’s relationship with nature.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>The tone is all over the place, and the contrast doesn’t always work in the film’s favor.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b><a href="/oscar-predictions-best-makeup-and-hairstyling/">Best Makeup and Hairstyling</a><br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>7/10<br><br>"SASQUATCH SUNSET"