Wednesday, 16 September 2015

HOW HEAVY THIS HAMMER - Review By Greg Klymkiw - TIFF 2015 - Self-loathing 4 U

How Heavy This Hammer (2015)
Dir. Kazik Radwanski
Starring: Erwin Van Cotthem, Kate Ashley, Seth Kirsh, Andrew Latter

Review By Greg Klymkiw
"I know at last what I want to be when I grow up.
When I grow up I want to be a little boy."

- Robert Slocum in Joseph Heller's "Something Happened"

"You can spend the entire second half of your life
recovering from the mistakes of the first half."

- Tommy Wilhelm in Saul Bellow's Seize the Day

“...for your life to be worth anything you must sooner or later
face the possibility of terrible, searing regret."

- Frank Bascombe in Richard Ford's The Sportswriter
Erwin (Erwin Van Cotthem) has never grown up. He spends most of his leisure time alone in front of a computer playing a video game which takes him into the adventure world of viking warriors he desperately longs to have been a part of.

He barely acknowledges his wife and two boys. On rare occasions he lumbers out of his man-cave to eat dinner. With his late-period-Orson-Welles-like frame, the sounds he emits over the family dinner table are seldom conversation, but mastication is joyously present.

He's been a lucky man during this horrendous period of despair. His wife has been surprisingly supportive of his ennui, but she's quickly losing patience as his increasing misanthropy is affecting their two sweet boys.

His jowly countenance has stroke/heart-attack written all over it - he's in pure self-destruction mode. The only exercise he gets is playing rugby. In spite of his girth, the sport seems to fit him like a glove. Here his weight allows him to smash his opponents to a pulp and for a few hours per week, Erwin gets to be a Viking warrior on the pitch. After each game, he also has an excuse to quaff several barrel-fulls of beer, his inebriation hardly the sort of thing which engenders him to his wife and kids when he eventually stumbles home.

Erwin might even have it in him to be a good husband and father if it wasn't for the fact that he's only around in body. His spirit is lost under the layers of flesh and self-loathing.

Changes are indeed looming.

Though there are a myriad of films which dramatically render the mid-life crises of white, middle-class men, I can think of very few in recent years (and no, in case you were wondering, NOT the overrated Sam Mendes nonsense American Beauty) which achieve the kind of stark truth and resonance nailed by Kazik Radwanski in his intensely gripping kitchen sink exploration of male ennui in his sophomore feature film How Heavy This Hammer.

Certainly the 50s, 60s and 70s in both British and American cinema are periods which exemplify some of the best work in this tradition and Radwanski's picture can easily share a place with films like: Tony Richardson's Look Back in Anger, Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky, John Cassavetes' Husbands, Gilbert Cates' I Never Sang For My Father, Douglas Schwartz's Your Three Minutes Are Up and among many others, Bob Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces. (There was also many great Canadian pictures in this tradition, most notably Paul Lynch's The Hard Part Begins, Peter Pearson's Paperback Hero, Peter Carter's The Rowdyman and the grandaddy of all Canadian beautiful loser pictures, Donald Shebib's Goin' Down The Road.)

Rather than movies, though, Radwanski's picture seems much closer to a literary tradition, that of Saul Bellow, Joseph Heller, Phillip Roth, John Updike, Richard Ford, Frederick Exley, et al - the grand purveyors of the deepest depths of male angst. Radwanski does not disappoint in this respect. His film is as harrowing a dive into self hatred as one might imagine.

Using the British New Wave kitchen sink tradition of handheld cinematography, Radwanski takes a few steps further into despair as his brilliantly photographed film seems to live in perpetual closeups - most of the time focused upon the great performance of Erwin Van Cotthem as the hapless wannabe father/husband. Keeping us so glued to the faces of the characters forces us to examine virtually every blemish, wrinkle and pore.

What we see on the surface, of course, is skin deep, but we can't help but look deeper.

In spite of everything, in spite of Erwin's selfishness and repellence, Radwanski, his creative team and actors manage to maintain a level of humanity so that we're always in Erwin's corner - hoping and praying he doesn't keep fucking up.

The aforementioned closeups are a big part of this. When Erwin isn't completely blank, his eyes seem to mist over and moisten as if deep down in those ocular pools is the spirit of a man once imbued with great warmth and sensitivity, a man who has lost his way, possibly even irretrievably.

Still, he tries to change, but it gets even more calamitous as he continues to blow his attempts to turn things around. The will always seems to be there, but such is his lot in life to keep fucking it up. It's as if his attempts to change things are akin to merely paying lip service.

What Radwanski's film so tragically details is a man whose only forward movement is always accompanied by two steps backward. We're left with the portrait of a man whose lot in life is to ruin everything that could bring joy to his life.

The picture is a heartbreaker

The Film Corner Rating: ***** 5-Stars

How Heavy This Hammer enjoys its world premier in the Contemporary World Cinema program at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF 2015).