Thursday, July 23, 2009

Review: Pontypool (2009)

The setting is Pontypool, a Canadian podunk mired in snowiest winter. The hour is ungodly-early, and disgraced talk radio host Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) is still getting his bearings at the new small-beans gig. The morning begins typically enough, but soon unbelievable reports of mob violence begin coming in. Shut up in their studio, Mazzy and his crew try to make sense of the situation as it worsens--and even as merely speaking about it becomes dangerous.

Pontypool, directed by Bruce McDonald and based on the novel Pontypool Changes Everything by Tony Burgess, does what so many zombie-type films fail to: while playing with the familiar undead themes of senseless mob rule and inverted (or erased) humanity, it climbs out of the Romero sandbox and presents a wholly different type of baddie. The "conversationalists", as they are referred to in interviews with the director but not in the film itself, are mere living humans infected with empty linguistic mimesis, the frustration of which drives them to violence.

Viewers looking for a coherent pseudoscientific justification will be diappointed. This is more like Les Revenants (2004), an eerie French film about the return of the dead that saw no reason to inject half-assed explanations or even logical chains of consequences. The event simply occurs, and the results simply are. Pontypool, likewise, includes no talk of radiation or viral mutation. The phenomenon seems to be a massive metaphor, perhaps for the idiosyncratic nature of human existence and the increasing impossibility of genuine communication (or even interest in it) as we move forward into times that are more and more Me-centered. My husband suggests that it might symbolize the poisonous nature of some Western ideologies (only the English language is affected by the disorder--I argue that this plot point is a contrivance rather than part of a political statement).

The subtext might be hazy, but McHattie's dialogue makes a general point quite clearly: words only have the meaning that we give to them, and we can rip that meaning away or swap it out for another as we please. This is a flimsy theme, so either the creators intended for the film to provoke speculation about deeper themes, and certainly succeeded in our case, or they're satisfied with this stoner-musing level of cut-rate open-ended "like, what if my blue was your orange, man" philosophizing. Ain't a thing wrong with that.

For my money, though, Les Revenants does a better job of letting its characters simply deal with the repercussions through an organic dramatic playout rather than spend all their time talking. And talking. And talking about how to defeat something that's never fully explained in the first place, trying to come up with logical solutions to illogical problems, as McHattie's character is forced to do by virtue of being an on-air personality attempting to inform his listenership and by virtue of the vehicle of terror being the spoken word itself. There's no avoiding it, and I consider that a pitfall.

However, the acting is solid, the aesthetic is evocatively dreary, and the violence is hard (if not abundant). It's not a loud movie. The first half hour is remarkably well-executed and chilling. If you like your zombie horror straight-up and untainted by artsy half-baked injections of meaning, it might not be for you. If you're interested in experimentation with what "zombies" can be, you won't find your ninety-five minutes wasted.