Saturday, September 4, 2010

Pontypool - 2008

I think this is the finest preview I have ever seen.  If this didn't make you want to see the movie, then I just don't know what to think.

Director:                      Bruce McDonald
Writer:                         Tony Burgess
                (Adapted from his story – Pontypool Changes Everything)
Cinematography:        Miroslaw Baszak
Editing:                       Jeremiah Munz

Grant Mazzzy                           Stephen McHattie
Sydney Briar                            Lisa Houle
Laurel-Ann Drummond             Georgina Reilly
Dr. Mendez                              Hrant Alianak
Ken Loney (voice)                    Rick Roberts
Nigel Healing (voice)               Daniel Fathers 
Nancy Freethy                          Beatriz Yuste
Tony/Lawrence                        Toney Burgess
Jay/Osama                               Boyd Banks
Maurenn/Faraj                         Hannah Fleming 
Colin/Daud                               Rachel Burns 
Spooky Woman                       Laura Nordin 

Big, wet sloppy ones. 

“Shut up or die” is the tagline to "Pontypool".  I really like this movie.  However, you could make a case that it misrepresents itself.  The preview and ads make it look as if it is a fairly standard zombie horror story.   It’s not really a zombie tale; for one thing the victims are not dead or even undead and are not referred to as “zombies” but as “conversationalists”. 
 We open with a long view of car headlights piercing the dark of a snowy wasteland.  The driver stops at a red light and out of the silent nowhere he is startled by a woman outside his window, coatless in the cold, speaking gibberish.  Suddenly, she’s gone before he can find out who she is or if she needs help.  As she disappears into the dark her voice is heard echoing every word he calls out to her.  It is as chilling an opening scene as I have ever shivered through.
We learn that the driver is Grant Mazzy, on his way to his gig as morning talk dj at a tiny radio station in rural Ontario.  The rest of the story unfolds inside the station as we meet the two other main characters – Sydney Briar, his producer, and Laurel Ann Drummond, his technician.  Details of these peoples’ lives and character are revealed in small, natural ways.

Young Laurel Ann is an Afghanistan vet who has a crush on Grant.  Sydney is a smart, compassionate but no-nonsense producer who hired Grant for his shock-jock, big-city style but has to continually rein him in to fit in with the small-town audience to whom he is now speaking.  These listeners are not as impressed with his “taking no prisoners” shtick as they are in need of lists of school closures and traffic reports from “Ken, in the Sunshine Chopper”.  The chopper by the way, is Ken’s Dodge Dart parked on a hilltop.  I love that detail.

Grant is a man who has washed up in the backwaters of Canada, bitter and disappointed after being fired over and over from bigger jobs.  This is probably his last stop, but he is still proud of his talent and even though he hates the harsh climate and he is drinking to get through his a.m. program, he has not completely given up.

As the morning progresses, we start to hear reports of large mobs of people, acting bizarrely, and chanting.  Ken is an eyewitness to a herd of hundreds of people outside a building, exploding through the walls as many are killed or wounded.  Pandemonium seems to have broken out in this small town, but there is no official clarification as to what the hell is really going on.  Grant and the others are isolated in the station, trying to report what is happening with very little to go on.

Eventually, in the one bit of somewhat clunky exposition, we learn that an infection is being spread through words, specifically the English language.  People are infected by hearing a random word or phrase and then repeat it over and over until there is nothing else in them and they become mindless animals. The infected get stuck in this logorrhea until they either find a victim or explode.   Grant has to face the irony of being a talk jock, wanting to report this huge story so people can be warned.  But the very words he is sending out may be spreading the disease.  What should he do?   I know this sounds bizarre, and it is.

Here is my point:  I think this movie has many layers of meaning.  To me, the real story here is about relationships and communication.  We all so often talk “at” each other, rather than “with”.   Meaningless, unimportant words are thrown at us all day, no matter where we are or what we do.  Do we ever understand each other?   Do we speak to loved ones out of habit only, without genuine emotion?  Do we really make a connection with anyone else?  Are words used by authorities to frighten and control us?  Do our words have any meaning?  Do we ever really listen to each other? 

Pontypool” can certainly be enjoyed as a very suspenseful, albeit unusual, psychological thriller.  There is some gore – one character literally explodes in a vomit of blood.  But the violence is mostly heard in the police or eye witness reports.  We “see” in our imagination the raging chaos much more clearly than I think could be created visually.   With its (basically) one set, it has the feel of a radio play, and in fact has been made into one.

Surprisingly, the shots “outside” seem more claustrophobic than the scenes set inside the studio.  In the first shot in Grant’s car, with the blackness and blizzard around us, we can’t see beyond the headlights so we might as well be in a cave.   Once inside the studio, we feel less constricted; the camera moves smoothly from character to character - in close to medium and longer shots. 
All the characters, even the ones we only hear, are drawn so well they feel like people we have already met.  By the end of this movie I could almost imagine that I have been listening to this station for years.  Grant, as played by Stephen McHattie, is not all the fiery trouble-maker he poses.  Gracefully and subtly McHattie shows us Grant’s warmth and vulnerability.  I had forgotten what a fine actor this man is.  (Go rent “A History of Violence” to see him as a cold hearted but complex hit man). 

Sydney and Grant have a chemistry together that becomes more overt as the story moves them closer together.  (Interesting side note – these two actors are married in real life.)  They reveal themselves to each other and in the final minutes reach a complete understanding of and joy in each other.  If this darn apocalypse thing hadn’t gotten in the way, their future could have been very interesting to say the least.

I think the real horror that has been revealed to us is that of being alone in a world that doesn’t understand a thing we say.

Stick around after the credits. There is a curious coda which I would be happy for someone else to explain to me.

I really like this movie.  Shut up or die.   

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