American cinema has long been fascinated by the romantic qualities of the quintessential loser, from the aspirational posturing evinced by John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy to the manic dream-chasing of Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, but the disposition and behavior of even likable outcasts like Joe Buck and Rupert Pupkin are uniformly coded as undesirable, essential characteristics of the weak and the weird. A fundamental deficiency of films about losers is that they tend to elicit sympathy rather than empathy, building observational distance into their approach; this is where even great films often recede back into cliché. Perhaps because the movies reflect beauty even where there is none, the ugly can only be scrutinized from a safe remove.
But if American cinema has difficulty actively embracing the losers about whom it remains curious, Canadian cinema makes things easier by simply self-identifying as one, ever turning its gaze inward and emerging repulsed by the results. A deep sense of resignation and defeat pervades the national canon, the mythology of failure in a way its defining characteristic: Donald Shebib’s seminal Goin’ Down the Road posits destitution as the inevitable conclusion to every pursuit of success; Don Owen’s Nobody Waved Goodbye ends when its recently fired hero abandons his pregnant wife; Guy Maddin’s Careful is set in a fictitious mountain community in which displays of emotion cause avalanches. What distinguishes these films from their American contemporaries isn’t so much their interest in the discontentment of failure as it is the manner in which they claim the act of failing as distinctly their own, not only embracing the misfortune, but practically wallowing in it.
Tower, Toronto filmmaker Kazik Radwanski’s debut feature, proudly takes its place within this substantive Canadian filmmaking tradition. With that in mind, recognizing the foundation of loser-glorification on which the film builds is central to understanding its appeal, which might be why many critics, especially those based outside of Canada, have failed to perceive its specific regional character. Like Todd Solondz’s Dark Horse, Tower concerns an ostensible loser—in this case 34-year-old Derek (Derek Bogart), rapidly balding and still living in his parents’ basement—whose largely successful endeavors to socialize normally seem at odds, in conventional terms, with his style and apparent manner. Neither withdrawn nor reticent, Derek is perfectly comfortable approaching others; we find him dancing at clubs, attempting to court women, chatting with co-workers. There’s a certain abrasiveness to his personality that’s hard to precisely describe, but the resulting friction that emerges between Derek and those in his company, from friends who appear awkward around him to the girlfriend (Nicole Fairbairn) he eventually courts, gradually becomes the film’s central interest, forming a tenuous narrative tissue that connects these otherwise disparate scenes.
This is the rare case of a film about a kind of social outcast whose relational difficulty isn’t rooted in any readily identifiable character deficiencies; though it’s clear that Derek can’t quite connect with others, it’s next to impossible to pinpoint why. He spends his days alternately working construction part-time for his uncle, a profession to which he seems neither interested nor suited, and laboring away at the computer animation he considers his true vocation, though it becomes clear that he’s not exactly an undiscovered prodigy in this area either. In many ways Derek is the classic Canadian antihero, plopped down into a contemporized milieu: Doomed before he even begins, pursuing a dream he’ll likely never see through, he’s the ultimate (sociable) loser. Tower suggests, for a while at least, that Derek’s real problem is his fear of commitment, as evidenced by a hasty breakup—predicated, it seems, on his distaste for putting an effort into anything—and a rejection of career help from a family friend. But the film’s cynicism runs even deeper: The relationship itself was a nonstarter stumbled into almost by accident and the “career help,” such that it is, never seemed promising to begin with. Commitment can hardly be an issue when what’s abandoned has nothing going for it.
In any case, Derek’s problem isn’t that he’s simply dweebish or grossly undesirable, as he might be depicted in a more conventional film, and Radwanski strives to portray his exploits as relatable rather than merely strange. Tower’s loose-knit screenplay, arrived at through much director-guided improvisation, has a nuanced feel for social interaction, capturing the precise ebb and flow of casual conversation and articulating smartly the feelings it inspires. Small moments often just feel right, in a way that’s difficult to explain: Derek’s stilted attempt to make small talk with his co-workers, for instance, nails the way ice-breaking questions hang in the air when ignored by the other party, as when his meager conversational offering is blurted out with the desperate air of somebody who doesn’t know what else to say: “Do you, uh, have a credit card?” he asks an uninterested colleague buried in his Blackberry. These moments are collar-tuggingly awkward, but they’re awkward in a way not at all unique to somebody considered a loser; this sort of embarrassing communication breakdown should be recognizable to anyone.
Tower, more than most films of its kind, is deeply observational, and the intimacy it achieves with its protagonist makes it one of the most effective character studies of the past several years. Radwanski’s aesthetic, carefully honed over the course of his three well-regarded shorts, is exceptionally rigorous (this film, like his others, is composed entirely of close-ups and tight medium shots, almost all of which circulate around Derek’s head) and the results are as impressively singular as they are often distressingly suffocating. The effect is principally visceral: During a routine dentist visit, for instance, an examination of a cavity becomes our examination of a cavity, the camera ever-present and probing. “You’re not feeling any pain right now,” the dentist advises, “but you may feel a lot of pain in the future.” It’s an obvious metaphor, but Tower isn’t without self-awareness in this regard; in case one wants to accuse the film’s symbols of being too on the nose, one of its most important symbols is literally on Derek’s nose, in the form of a deep gash. By the time Derek finds himself on a full-blown raccoon hunt, trying to lock down an uncontrollable pest, it’s apparent what the film intends to illustrate. That’s another trademark of the Canadian cinema: From the vaginal recesses of Videodrome to the political badlands of Mon Oncle Antoine, the symbols are certainly clear.