Saturday, October 8, 2011

Pontypool (2008)

Formerly popular talk radio host Grant Mazzy (the brilliant Stephen McHattie for once in a film that's as good as he deserves) has a new job quite low on the media food chain in the small Ontario town of Pontypool. Little does Grant suspect that another snowy night of dreary small town news and his rather desperate attempts to still play the big talk radio guy in surroundings where that just won't work will turn into something quite different. An outbreak of strange yet murderous behaviour strikes the small community and Grant, his producer Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle) and technician Laurel-Ann Drummond (Georgina Reilly) will the spend the night trying to correlate the contents of the catastrophe, and possibly, just possibly, to survive it.

See how I tried not to spoil even the slightest thing about Pontypool here, even though the 'net's full of all details about the film, and everyone in the market for it should already have seen it? It's not part of my new spoiler-free review philosophy - that I don't have - but a result of my conviction that some films need and deserve to be watched without too much foreknowledge.

It is hardly a spoiler, though, when I tell you that Canadian indie director (and improbable TV hired gun) Bruce McDonald's trip into the world of the horror movie - based on the novel Pontypool Changes Everything by Tony Burgess who is also responsible for the film's script - is a pretty singular variation on the zombie outbreak movie as seen through the lens of somebody who doesn't feel the need to make the same movie every other director working in the same sub-genre has already made (some of them, like that guy named George, repeatedly) again. Instead, McDonald aims a bit higher and to the left, and produces a film that works fantastically as a thriller, yet maintains a sense of the playful and of the skewed philosophical you don't get to see on screen - zombie cinema or not -  all that often.

Pontypool is a film that finds the fine line where the horrifying and the absurd meet and dances on it for most of its running time, never stumbling, never faltering.

That McDonald manages this on a budget that probably wouldn't be enough to pay for your average Hollywood star's hairdresser is more than just a bit impressive, too. Most of what the director achieves he does through the fine art of reduction. The whole film basically takes place in one and a half rooms, features only a handful of actors and very little outward action for most of its running time - in fact, large parts of it consist of the most dreaded of things, people talking - yet where this would be reduction born out of need with other films, Pontypool lets it look like the best, or the only, way this particular story could be told.

Much of the film's effect (in this viewer: giddiness, excitement, and the pressing need to convince other people to watch Pontypool, too) is based on everyone involved in it doing everything right: Burgess' intelligent and complex script eschews simple answers to everything and can do ironic distancing without sacrificing its characters' humanity. McDonald keeps everything tight, uses the visually unexpected (and some great editing magic) without ever falling into the trap of pointing out his own efforts in a self-congratulatory way. The director clearly trusts his actors to do their jobs as well as he does his own. The actors - not only in the obvious case of McHattie but just as much those of Houle and Reilly - are rewarding this trust by doing a perfect job as well, bringing the intimated complexities of their characters to live and letting their jobs look effortless once they have to sell the weirder (and the last act can get pretty damn weird) elements of the story. And did I mention the sound design? I don't want to use the word "perfect" again, but what can you do?

Pontypool is just a great film, the kind of film that does everything right, so it's a bit frustrating when you're talking to people who are absolutely in the market for its type of intelligence, its type of weirdness, and its kinda-sorta zombies, and still haven't seen it. So, if you're reading this, and haven't found time for Pontypool until now, please do. It might just change everything.


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