Sasquatch Sunset Uses and Abuses Its Harried Hairy Heroine

Movies Reviews Jesse Eisenberg
Sasquatch Sunset Uses and Abuses Its Harried Hairy Heroine

Riley Keough and Jesse Eisenberg star in Sasquatch Sunset, the latest feature from auteur brothers Nathan and David Zellner. Following a family of Bigfoot, a year in the life, the film boasts stunning views of Northern California and the lush landscape of Humboldt County’s redwood forests, as well as creative, oftentimes cringe-worthy cinematography from Mike Gioulakis (Us, It Follows). Conceptually imaginative, Sasquatch Sunset has no dialogue other than grunts, groans and the occasional shrill shriek, and the four actors are suited in impressively expressive, and highly detailed, full-body creature costumes. Nathan Zellner plays the father, Keough the daughter, Eisenberg the oldest son and Christophe Zajac-Denek the youngest son. They labor as one and depend on each other to survive through the seasons and, together, they roam their homeland in search of food, entertainment and a place to take shelter from the many dangers of the wilderness. But for the only lady sasquatch of the bunch, the threats to her survival look different than her kin. Within the film’s first five minutes, it becomes abundantly clear that while life as a sasquatch is hard, life as a female sasquatch is even harder, and I just couldn’t get past that injustice. 

Sasquatch Sunset premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival, where its gruesome and gross body-comedy sent audiences out the door. The movie could resemble a nature documentary, considering it’s set against a background of breathtaking scenery and scored by The Octopus Project’s melodious instrumental refrains. But do you, dear reader, have the stomach for 90 minutes of mythical creatures defecating, pissing and giving into their most primal desires? If you do, prepare to encounter a dark and disturbing commentary about the cruelty of the natural world, one that will simultaneously leave you laughing out loud while contemplating the plight of the human condition.

At first, I was both shocked and offended at the premise; gratuitous violence against women seems so out of touch. My opinion largely hasn’t changed, but I appreciate what writer David Zellner did with the script: By depicting human-like creatures who exist only in the collective imagination, he can explore difficult themes such as asshole fathers, idiot brothers, and the universal burden of womanhood that spans species, both real and…otherwise. Sasquatch Sunset succeeds in portraying a group of wildlife, oblivious to the lore surrounding them, as they traverse conflicts with the outside world, between each other, and within themselves.

In visage, emotional dimension and primal behavior, the creatures resemble apes as much as they resemble humans. Evidence of the Zellner brothers’ anthropological research doesn’t stop there, though, and can be seen in the very fiber of Sasquatch Sunset. Not quite human, yet not quite animal, the sasquatch that the filmmakers and cast have created are so life-like that they bridge the divide for our modern brains to understand our intrinsic connection to nature. With enough distance between the Zellners’ sasquatch and more simplistic animals such as bears, for instance, we are able to grasp the emotional complexities these folkloric creatures possess. In one scene, the sasquatch family wreaks havoc on a campsite, at the behest of the Lady Squatch herself. As a self-proclaimed human, if I came across my campsite torn to bits I’d assume that a bear did it, looking for food. The actual impetus for destroying the campsite was not food, however, but a ‘90s synth-pop song that inspires a slew of complicated emotions within the female creature, feelings that separate us humans from beasts. Funny-sad and funny-infuriating are feelings that run through the film like an undercurrent; combined with its uncomplicated ending, this makes for a begrudgingly pleasant watch. The pain and distress of the film often comes at the expense of our heroine, however, and considering the agony her brothers and deadbeat father put her through, a single instance of righteous indignation just wasn’t enough for me. I was left with a thirst for vengeance that was never quite sated. 

Keough’s female sasquatch carries the film, with the burden of the plot placed squarely on her hairy shoulders. Her character suffers abuse of the outright variety, as well as the more latent kind: The men in her family always want something from her. Right from the start, her bodily autonomy comes into question and remains ever-elusive as the film progresses; her father and brothers maintain an overt entitlement to her time and resources, while offering little to nothing in return. (If anything, they cause more damage, forcing the Bigfoot Broad to jump into action.) Scene after scene, we glimpse the men of the family enjoying various forms of pleasure, from play-fighting and befriending the fauna to acting on their carnal instincts at our heroine’s expense. Her pleasure takes place only in solitude and in diminishing regularity. If she is enjoying herself, she’s interrupted by another family member usurping her joy for the sake of their own; when she is in pain, she keeps it to herself. 

The parallels drawn between the lived experience of the Lady Squatch and the life of a female human are a clever device. They illuminate the quiet labors of care and the silent sacrifices that members of the female sex have made for millennia to keep a family alive, but the challenges confronting Keough’s character are relentless and without relief. Through the lens of a fictional creature, the Zellner brothers highlight the sorry state of womankind and attempt to showcase how ubiquitous female suffering is, across time, species and even realities, but the result turns out more like trauma porn. By situating it amidst crap-loads of scatological humor and a staggering natural setting, the severity of the subject matter is trivialized. In many ways, her unfair share of responsibilities reminds me of the concepts of weaponized incompetence and unpaid labor from women and mothers in society, in which caregivers, namely women, pour too much of themselves for the sake of the family while those around her grow increasingly unhelpful. In recent years, these ideas have made their way out of the minds of feminist scholars and into the mainstream. In the hands of the filmmakers, these notions of oppression found themselves buried beneath the forest floor of an affronting, overplayed (though well-executed) and thin conceit.

As much as I delighted in the whimsy, chuckled at the art-house ambiguity and applauded two men’s depiction of how taxing it is to be a woman, I couldn’t get past her pain and suffering. Nature is chaos, and she bears the brunt of that load, especially in comparison to her brothers, but she also never gets her just rewards, so I’m left frustrated and impotent. Maybe it’s in my human nature, but I’m looking for more satisfaction. Most of the laughs come from the male beasts using and abusing her body, love and will to survive, missing the mark as a criticism of the horrors of domesticity. Despite these trivialized tribulations, in Sasquatch Sunset, Nathan and David Zellner did capture one timeless, universal truth with precision: Men ain’t shit.

Director: Nathan Zellner, David Zellner
Writers: David Zellner
Starring: Riley Keough, Jesse Eisenberg, Christophe Zajac-Denek, Nathan Zellner
Release Date: April 12, 2024 

Felicia Reich is an entertainment writer and culture reporter. She lives in Brooklyn with her complex first person perspective and collection of decorative pillows. Follow her on Instagram @feliciamnqreich or around Whole Foods at a tasteful distance.

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