Joel Potrykus’s last film, Buzzard, placed its loafer protagonist in a crushingly dull middle-American milieu until he went berserk, with the donning of Freddy Krueger fingers and Halloween-store masks crudely symbolizing the rejection of a status-quo existence while also staying well within the bounds of realism. His new film, the beguiling The Alchemist Cookbook, begins where Buzzard left off, with the numbing social context a thing of the past and the hero, like some metamorphosing movie monster of yesteryear, transforming hastily into something beyond (or sub) human.
Swapping out the droopy features and greasy hair of his regular leading man, Joshua Burge, for the smooth proportions of Ty Hickson, Potrykus has again centered his attention on the economically frustrated, goal-deficient young American male, only here he’s modified the canvas. We’re no longer in a geographically defined Michigan (though the film does continue the director’s streak of shooting in his home state), but rather some liminal landscape between civilization and a lunatic mindscape. And while Buzzard clung to cause-and-effect drama, The Alchemist Cookbook veers without a compass into a realm of surreal stream of consciousness.
Both the film’s title and its poster design hearken plainly to William Powell’s The Anarchist Cookbook, and sure enough, Hickson’s Sean spends a healthy chunk of his time brewing up DIY chemical concoctions like some overeager student of that notorious Vietnam-era revolution pamphlet. In actuality, Sean, who’s holed himself up in a backwoods camper with only a feline companion, is dealing with paranoia and delusion—namely the preposterous conjecture, seemingly cobbled together from bits and pieces of the Latin voodoo books scattered around his slipshod workspace, that he’ll be able to spontaneously generate wealth through some perfect storm of crazed overthinking.
Under Potrykus’s aggressively elliptical editing scheme, the specifics of this grand plan are left purposefully unclear. Sean’s arcane undertakings and time-killing dawdles—measuring and mixing household ingredients, wrapping himself in Christmas lights and dancing to hip-hop, shouting at unseen terrors in the distance—are strung together in blunt cuts that obscure the time elapsed from one activity to the next, and from a visual standpoint, these scenes are as single-mindedly absorbed in Sean’s immediate vicinity as he often is. Indeed, because of these piecemeal perceptual reference points, it’s even possible for a brief period of time to suspect that he’s just cooking meth like your average crestfallen social exile.
The Alchemist Cookbook’s trajectory ends up being much stranger and less prosaic than that. Things start to go awry with the first arrival of Sean’s friend, the decidedly sane, if openly goofy, Cortez (Amari Cheatom), who’s been shouldering the duty of periodically stocking Sean’s residence with worldly provisions like Doritos and Gatorade. Cortez’s presence throws off the mystic’s mojo, and it’s safe to say that when he force-feeds himself cat food to lighten the mood in a set piece that recalls the gluttonous spaghetti-shoveling from Buzzard, it doesn’t provide for Sean the intended entertainment value. That said, it’s not until Cortez catches sight of the marauded opossum left to rot on the floor that his friend’s frail grip on reality really starts to slacken and the shit hits the fan—which, in Potrykus’s world, doesn’t entail anything more spectacular than two guys awkwardly pacing around and swearing at each other in a long take from the vantage point of a locked-off camera.
While austerity has typically been Potrykus’s go-to directorial strategy in spotlighting the eccentric speaking patterns and physical tics of his performers, The Alchemist Cookbook does introduce some canny aesthetic digressions as the film wades into psychological horror. There’s the grisly, self-consciously unreal prosthetics utilized when it becomes evident that Sean has made an unwise pact with the devil (or is it Bigfoot?). Then there’s the subtle engagement of techniques that have become associated with modern horror filmmaking, like speed ramping and frame-skipping, and that here create unnerving tensions with the darkly comic aspects of the script.
Such anomalous effects aside, though, the film remains an unmistakable Potrykus job. Few working filmmakers are as in tune with the curious predicament of being young and capable yet too lazy to bother fighting an uphill financial battle, and still fewer that manage to casually assert their cine-literacy without making a show of it (see the one-two punch of Sansho the Bailiff and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid visual quotations that close the film). In its dogged rejection of easy audience identification points and its gradual untethering from logic, The Alchemist Cookbook only offers a platform for Potrykus to push his authorial quirks further.
BAMcinemaFest runs from June 15—26.