As hard as it is to believe, it’s now been over a decade since the release of Grindhouse, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s ambitious, perhaps misguided (though thoroughly entertaining) attempt to bring the aesthetic of 1970s exploitation films into the mainstream and, in the process, entirely reimagine the business model of studio films in the twenty-first century. In the latter pursuit, the film was a singular failure– it lost millions of dollars, and wasn’t even released in its original form on home video for more than three years– but in the former, it can only be considered a resounding success. In the decade since, the Grindhouse aesthetic has been thoroughly internalized, popping up everywhere from video games to TV commercials. As a result, we may be at the point where the use of exploitation film signifiers no longer needs to be seen as a gimmick (as Grindhouse could perhaps be charged), and can be used as a vehicle for genuinely complex art.
“This is not an exploitation film,” Robert D. Krzykowski announced in his opening remarks for the New England premiere of his debut feature, The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot, at the Somerville Theatre last Thursday. “It’s a character study… If you’re going in expecting an exploitation film, maybe dial your brain back a couple of ticks, closer to Robert Altman or Hal Ashby.” At the time, I assumed this statement was at least somewhat tongue-in-cheek– he was, after all, referring to a film called The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot— but by the end of the film, I was convinced of his sincerity. To be sure, no one is likely to confuse the film (which I will henceforth refer to as MWKH, as I have deadlines to meet) with a lost work by the director of Nashville, but it is a surprisingly sweet, soulful work, with much more on its mind than a gloriously retro poster.
The titular Man is Calvin Barr, played in an inspired bit of typecasting by the great Sam Elliott. True to the title, as a young man (played in flashback by The Hobbit’s Aidan Turner), he did indeed launch a successful campaign to track and snuff out Der Fuhrer, though this isn’t exactly a revisionist history; the US kept the operation under wraps, and Germany substituted a series of body doubles until one of them shot himself in the bunker. Since then, he’s lived in obscurity in the house he grew up in, trading terse pleasantries with his younger brother (the always welcome Larry Miller) and sadly remembering the girl he left behind (Caitlin FitzGerald). One night, Calvin is visited by a pair of agents (Ron Livingston and Rizwan Manji) who have heard of his legend, and beg him to embark on one last mission: airdrop into the Canadian wilderness and assassinate the Bigfoot, who, for reasons too complicated to get into here, poses an existential threat to humanity. I won’t tell you what happens next, but the title should give you some idea.
Reading the above paragraph, you’d be forgiven for thinking this movie’s a little ridiculous– and, to be sure, in some ways you’d be correct. The two events implied in the title are staged as swift and thrilling bits of pulp fantasia, and the scene in which Barr’s Canadian mission is detailed piles absurdity upon absurdity, reaching multiple climaxes of deadpan delirium. But as I’ve continued to digest MWKH, these aren’t the scenes that stick most vividly in my memory. Instead, as Krzykowski suggests, what stands out is Elliott’s haunted, nuanced performance. As Barr, Elliott takes what could easily be a one- (or two-) joke premise and plays it completely straight, imbuing the role with deep melancholy and humanity; some of his most effective scenes consist of Barr simply staring forlornly at his surroundings, or maybe talking to his dog. Similarly, his scenes with comic great Miller are handled tenderly, suggesting a genuine relationship between two men who care deeply about each other, even if they were raised to keep their emotions hidden. In this regard, the film reminds me of Don Coscarelli’s Bubba Ho Tep, another film which uses an outrageous pulp premise and an irresistible bit of stunt-casting as a Trojan horse for a surprisingly heartfelt meditation on aging.
That being said, I should also point out that this film isn’t a total bummer, either. During the post-film Q&A, multiple people involved (including executive producer Douglas Trumbull, best known as the effects legend behind 2001, Blade Runner, and many, many others) described the film as embodying “a decency that’s missing from the world today”; Elliott apparently cited this as a factor that drew him to the role, adding that the character reminded him of his father and agreeing to do the film for no money. Indeed, what keeps this film from tipping either direction into camp or misery porn is that, with the exceptions of a gang of hoodlums who pick the wrong guy to mess with (and, of course, the literal nazis), most of the characters appear to be genuinely good, kind people. At times this almost pushes the film into schmaltz, particularly during the flashbacks; even here, however, it’s impossible not to be won over by FitzGerald’s girl-next-door radiance and Turner’s Chris-Evans-aw-shucksness. The crew seems to be aware of this, with composer Joe Kraemer mindful not to make the music sound too much like a Hallmark movie (of which, he noted, he’s scored forty!).
All in all, MWKH was one of the most delightful moviegoing surprises I’ve had in quite some time. I expected to enjoy myself, of course– a title like that does promise a good time, after all– but I wasn’t expecting something nearly so thoughtful, heartwarming, or earnest in its delivery. The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot is currently still making the festival circuit (it doesn’t even have a trailer yet), but I suspect you’ll be hearing more about both the film and Krzykowski in the months and years to come (and I’m clearly not the only one; in addition to Trumbull, the film’s executive producers also include Lucky McKee and John Sayles, both of whom know a thing or two about deceptively deep genre films). Whether it’s an exploitation film or not, MWKH is destined for a cult following– and, hopefully, more critical respect than the typical grindhouse fare.
The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot
dir. Robert D. Krzykowski
Attended New England Premiere, Thursday, 11/15 @ Somerville Theatre
Presented by Imagine Magazine and the Boston Underground Film Festival