Suffering from delusions of fortune, a young hermit (Ty Hickson, GIMME THE LOOT) hides out in the forest hoping to crack an ancient mystery, but pays a price for his mania.
When I saw that Joel Potrykus was the film's writer-director, I was immediately on board. His last feature, "Buzzard", really struck a nerve with me, and I feel a sense of pride that an upper Midwest filmmaker is making a go of it. In my review for "Buzzard", I noted a connection to Richard Linklater's early work (particularly "Slacker"). Perhaps Potrykus is following a similar rise to fame as Linklater: Allegedly, this is the first time Potrykus has not used an HDSLR or Super 8 camera to shoot his film, and the film quality is noticeably improved from earlier work.
We are dropped in to the middle of "Alchemist", and the early scenes leave us with some questions – who is this man and what is he up to? We quickly pick up on his independent, punk rock mentality. But is he crafting bombs, Unabomber-style? Perhaps this is a wilderness meth lab? The title is a clear allusion to the Anarchist Cookbook, but what does that mean? And what awful incident caused his leg injury?
The sparse cast allows Hickson a showcase, demonstrating that he is not just devastatingly handsome, but a superb thespian to boot. There is not a single scene without him, and in many scenes he is alone and has only gestures to emote with. In a little over an hour, Sean (Hickson) goes from wildly elated, to terrified, to menacing. If the Academy watched independent films, they would take note. Interestingly, as paranoia sets in, Hickson acts more like Joshua Burge did in "Buzzard". Does Potrykus script it this way, direct his actors this way, or is it a coincidence? Regardless, with Burge going on to appear in "The Revenant" and "20th Century Women", Hickson would probably be quite happy to follow his lead.
Amari Cheatom (DJANGO UNCHAINED) offers a bit of comic relief as the wannabe gangsta Cortez who has "got the good stuff", including a VCR to play such awful movies as "Red Heat" (not Schwarzenegger's finest moment). Although Cheatom is the supporting actor to Hickson, he still shows some acting chops in the second third of the film. (Then again, not knowing Cheatom personally, playing the gangsta could have been an impressive acting feat, even if he is very much a one-note character.)
The film has been described as "Evil Dead" meets "Walden" meets Jim Jarmusch. The "Evil Dead" comparison is actually quite fitting, as both could be described as films about a young man alone in the woods of Michigan who is forced to battle demons. The "Walden" aspect is self-explanatory. As for Jarmusch, I still prefer to think of Potrykus as being in the Linklater mold. For me, nothing can be Jarmuschesque unless it is black and white and Tom Waits appears in some capacity. (Yes, this is a very narrow definition, but that is how I envision the quintessential Jarmusch film.)
As is his wont, Potrykus defies genres with "Alchemist". On some level, it is clearly horror, because it involves conjuring demons, some bloody body parts, and a scene that will make you wince at the threat of finger trauma. But this is unconventional horror, really more of a story about mental illness with horror overtones. Think of William Friedkin's "Bug", for example. Horror? Yes. But not in the sense that we have comes to define that genre. Heck, the connection to the proverbial alchemist even hints at fantasy elements.
Critic Dennis Harvey explains, "Fans of absurdist indie comedies who find themselves watching a quasi-horror pic are likely to be happier than horror fans who find themselves watching an absurdist indie comedy with a demon in it." As a fan of both, I concede that Harvey makes a valid point. Indie fans (especially fans of "Buzzard") will find much to love. The die-hard horror crowd, however, might find themselves confused or even bored by the lack of action. In this sense, the film becomes a Rorschach test: it is as much about what was created as about the expectations the viewer brings with them.
"The Alchemist Cookbook" premieres at the Fantasia Film Festival on July 20, 2016. If you enter the theater with an open mind and without your preconceived notions of what a fantastic film should be, I suspect Joel Potrykus will be adding a few more members to his growing fan base.