Joel Potrykus, one of the most immediately distinctive American independent filmmakers to emerge in the last decade, makes movies about a very specific kind of guy. The protagonists of films like Ape (2012) and Buzzard (2014) are social outsiders, awkward goons and gangly male slackers stuck decades in the past, filling their time at the end of the world with pranks, petty crimes, and low-grade, Jackass-like stunts. In addition to his filmmaking practice, Potrykus has taught at Michigan State University and Grand Valley State, both in his home state of Michigan, and he remains devoted to the unglamorous margins of American culture in that vast expense referred to as “flyover country.”
If there’s any filmmaker Potrykus reminds me of, it’s Jared Hess, who had an unexpected mainstream hit with the independent, Idaho-set Napoleon Dynamite. Potrykus and Hess are both fond of pariahs who replace the society that has rejected them with a universe of their own imagination. What separates Potrykus from Hess is the unease lingering under the lowbrow sensibility; beneath the boredom and the fart jokes there’s an unavoidable and apocalyptic sense of anxiety about our coming doom. His new film Relaxer, which premiered last year at SXSW and opened in theaters this March, is at once his smallest — following a single protagonist isolated in his apartment for the entire runtime — and his most visionary.
Joshua Burge, who has played the lead in two Potrykus features and one short, is Abbie, a gamer whose older brother brutalizes him into competitive food challenges — when we first meet Abbie, he is almost nude, swallowed up by his couch, chugging glasses of milk in minute-long intervals.
Relaxer is set in the shadow of Y2K, but Abbie takes no notice of the darkening clouds around him; he just stays inside and keeps playing Pac-Man, determined to reach the game’s secret 257th level. The only clock that Abbie and the audience have are his friends and neighbors, whose visits become increasingly scarce as the months go on and order — in both Abbie’s brain and the outside world we never really see — breaks down. Abbie’s commitment to the atrophy of his body is an initial source of absurdist comedy, but as the film continues and his body is further emaciated and deteriorated, Burge’s performance becomes increasingly harrowing in its abject physicality, less Napoleon Dynamite and more David Cronenberg.
The characters in Relaxer are fluent in the vernacular of American pop culture, consuming media almost as quickly as they chug Faygo, but the film’s visual style is closer to the slow cinema of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Albert Serra, or Pedro Costa than anything I’ve ever seen from the United States. There’s a theatrical current running through Relaxer, and given the limited environment, small cast, and elliptical narrative, it’s easy to imagine Potrykus mounting a stage production of his own film. But the camera is still essential — it scans across Abbie’s apartment more than it pans, with a careful surveillance-like precision. We become intimately familiar with the space in which we are situated but are never quite in control, always uneasy encountering the edges of the location that remain invisible. The agony and ecstasy of Burge’s performance is contrasted with the still calculation of the camera, but there’s a parallel between the limits of our perception within the space we’re planted and Abbie’s physical constraints.
Abbie’s refusal to use his legs forces him to extend his body in other ways. He constructs elaborate mechanical claws out of anything within arm’s reach, forcibly evolving his body like the accidental tools that expand the chimpanzee’s brain in 2001: A Space Odyssey. And, like the lonely sojourner of A Space Odyssey, the physical and emotional trauma Abbie undergoes pushes him toward transcendence, endowing him with psychic abilities beyond the capacity of more mobile humans.
The world of Relaxer is a world in which Y2K actually did happen, a metaphor for the looming mass extinction event that many readers of this review may still yet experience. By examining how the individual responds to the kind of isolated ecosystem we all may have to inhabit when the outside world becomes too harsh and inhospitable, Relaxer goes beyond the global warming disaster porn of Hollywood movies like The Day After Tomorrow. Potrykus seems to suggest that climate change, for better or worse, will be its own kind of Stargate sequence: Abbie has to grow his arms outward with plastic and duct tape to compensate for his sedentary lifestyle, the increasingly chaotic conditions of our global environment will mutate the last of our species beyond recognition. We can predict the weather patterns to come, but we cannot predict the potential impacts on the human bodies that will survive. What begins as a strange portrait of American pop culture soon becomes the most urgent film of the year. Relaxer unexpectedly confronts the urgent, existential dilemma of climate change, a subject most filmmakers in this country ignore, regardless of the scale they’re working at. That Potrykus is able to challenge us so deeply with such a low budget and limited resources makes Relaxer all the more impressive and essential.
Relaxer the film is in select theaters now and available for purchase and rental on most major streaming platforms.