About a third of the way into The Alchemist Cookbook, Sean (Ty Hickson) dares his friend Cortez (Amari Cheatom) to eat a can of cat food. Cortez takes him up on the challenge, and even though he clearly can’t stand the taste on his first bite, he tries his best to hide this from his friend and takes an even bigger batch for his second helping, only for him to finally give up soon after. This moment is not only one of the most hilarious scenes I’ve seen in a movie in quite a while, but it’s also a pretty good encapsulation of writer/director Joel Potrykus’s methods, with Cortez’s commitment to a blatantly ridiculous dare a miniature version of Potrykus’s own ruthless commitment to chronicling the strangest of human behavior.
The appearance of The Alchemist Cookbook on the cinema landscape certainly couldn’t be better timed, especially as a corrective to Jared Hess’s recent heist yarn Masterminds and Jim Hosking’s concurrently released horror comedy The Greasy Strangler. Both of those films offer object lessons in what happens when self-satisfied filmmakers prize ostensibly beguiling quirks and cheap shock tactics above anything resembling recognizable humanity. With Hess encouraging his performers to dial up the hick schtick to 11 and Hosking doubling down on the absurdist comedy routines, deliberately cheesy gore and unpleasant nudity at the expense of coherent characterizations, their films exude a condescension toward their characters that makes the experience of being an audience member unendurable in such soullessness.
Condescension is as far from Potrykus’s black-comic sensibility as one could imagine. That is not to say, however, that his oddball protagonists—Sean here, and the characters Joshua Burdge played in the director’s previous two features, Buzzard and Ape—are likable characters by any means. Buzzard centered around a slacker named Marty Jackitansky who made it a badge of honor to try to scam the capitalist system in his own small ways, and who spent much of his free time perfecting a Freddy Krueger-like “Power Glove” with knives sticking out of it. Never does Potrykus try to make this main character appealing any more than he lets Sean off the hook for his increasingly crazy behavior out in the woods. And yet, Potrykus’s films seem animated by a genuine fascination with his eccentric main characters: a sincere desire to dissect them, to understand them, to present them to us in all their unadorned loopy glory for either our amusement or disdain.
Potrykus’s directorial style is crucial to expressing this perspective. He’s not into the knowingly campy archness of the acting and cinematography in The Greasy Strangler or the blaring hamminess of the performances in Masterminds. Instead, Potrykus insists on realism, an approach he supports with an emphasis on long takes and stationary camera set-ups. Far from detracting from the surreality of the strange human behavior it depicts, this style simply reminds one of the crucial secrets to Luis Buñuel’s artistic success. As Dave Kehr once noted about the great Spanish filmmaker’s Simon of the Desert, he’s able to find exactly “how much realism is required in surrealism.”
This is especially crucial in The Alchemist Cookbook, seeing that it finds Potrykus pushing his obsession with proudly lonely outsiders to the level of the supernatural—or does it? Ambiguity runs throughout the film’s minute attention to the details of Sean’s solitary existence as to whether all those offscreen, faraway monstrous roars he hears are actually “real” or figments of his imagination. Certainly, the fact that Cortez forgets to bring medication to his friend implies that what follows is simply a mental decline, exacerbating what was already a mind on the knife’s edge of sanity.
None of Sean’s eccentricities come out of nowhere, though. Like Marty in Buzzard and failed stand-up comedian/pyromaniac Trevor Newandyke in Ape, Sean fancies himself an antiestablishment rebel taking a stand against a corrupt system by adopting this crackpot lifestyle. One can glean this not just in stray lines of dialogue he and Cortez utter—with Cortez especially expressing, in his own endearingly goofy way, befuddled concern at his friend’s behavior—but in some of his deliberately retro habits: wearing a Minor Threat T-shirt, listening to music via cassette tapes, generally living in a manner that shuns any technological safety nets (there’s not a smartphone in sight in and around Sean’s trailer home). By merely chronicling Sean’s behavior strictly in the present rather than diving into the past that might have led him to this state, Potrykus refuses to pass judgment on him. One moment, though, in which Cortez reminds Sean of a slew of bills he has no interest in paying—because, as Sean says, bill collectors “no longer [own] him”—suggests the practical limitations of adopting this kind of off-the-grid way of living.
But Sean may be aiming for something more than just escaping modern society—possibly immortality, judging by a rueful monologue he offers two-thirds of the way into the film. He talks at length about his own version of paradise, one involving “Dorito sandwiches” and the robot from Rocky IV. This is where the film’s supernatural elements come into play. As a result of consulting a book of black magic—the “cookbook” of the film’s title, one assumes—and performing spells from it, he summons up a malevolent force that he finds himself not quite able to fully handle. If it’s the Devil he’s conjured, Potrykus’s detachment leaves the possibilities wide open. Perhaps The Alchemist Cookbook is also, in part, a religious allegory: a depiction of a man trying to understand a supreme being who is perhaps ultimately unfathomable. It’s a universal quest that, in this particular case, brings its seeker to the point of cheating Death before order is restored. Whatever Potrykus’s thrillingly unclassifiable film is, though, its mysteries will linger long after the shallow provocations of films like Masterminds and The Greasy Strangler have dissolved from memory.
Director: Joel Potrykus
Writer: Joel Potrykus
Starring: Ty Hickson, Amari Cheatom
Release Date: October 7, 2016
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist and The Village Voice. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine and former editor-in-chief of In Review Online. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.