Few works evoke a compliment as endearing as calling something Cronenbergian. A comparison to the great director (my favorite director still working today, for disclosure purposes) is not one I make lightly, but even without a single element of body horror, early Cronenberg is precisely what Bruce McDonald elicits with his rapturously weird PONTYPOOL. The superficial connection is that of the director’s shared homeland of Canada, but beyond that is a sibling ability to interweave oddities of the human condition with layers of captivating intimacy. The resulting cinematic tapestry is nothing short of end to end fascination.
Set entirely within the confines of a radio station situated in the basement of a small town’s church, PONTYPOOL is about a talk show host whose dying career is revitalized when reports start to trickle in of an unexplainable surge of man on man violence originating from a doctor’s office in the small titular Canadian province. Grant Mazzy, the radio host played with addictive discord by Stephen McHattie, his producer Sydney Briar and technical assistant Laurel Ann, are the barbs on the end of the hook that is Tony Burgess’ script, itself in turn an adaptation of his own book about a new strain of rage inducing virus. Their story within the walls of that church strings a realistic arch from disbelief to pure insanity and all the highs and lows both expected and unexpected along the way.
The idea that what is happening outside, as ambiguous as it be, is an Orwell era hoax soon dispels as Mazzy and co find themselves the sole bridge between the strange events in Pontypool and the clueless world beyond it.
As is always the case with single-setting movies, the headwind any director faces is how to keep a film visually arresting. Production design goes a long way to this end, a requirement director Bruce McDonald knows quite well. I’ve not read Burgess’ source material, but setting the radio station (and its pristine sound proof recording booth) in the basement of an old church is an inspired dichotomy on screen. It provides enough space to play around in editing wise while maintaining a central safety zone for the script to always retreat to (the booth). Plus, well, it all just looks fantastic thanks to the vivid cinematography.
More important than production design, however, in keeping events apace is the script. Not only is its mystery unconventional and original (to the screen), but the triumvirate of characters banter back and forth in an admirably organic way. Anchoring the film is, of course, Stephen McHattie, whose calm, gravely voice is perfect for the radio, but it’s his entire screen presence that draws the viewer nearer to the character every time McDonald pushes the camera in for a close-up. The side characters are not as well fleshed as the shock jock doing small town radio in Canada after getting the axe in America, but they’re sturdy enough support when the blizzard of shit demolishes the fan.
I’ll not ruin the crux of the film’s mystery, but it is certainly a first in the film world (though the idea behind this particular vector for infection stems back to Neal Stephenson’s cyperpunk blowout novel SNOW CRASH) and a welcome mutation on the proven zombie formula. It is an understandable concession to say that the ending of PONTYPOOL is disproportionate to the conversely flawless first two thirds. The revelations and resolutions reached make perfect sense in the world Burgess and McDonald created, but one could sympathize with viewers who find its leap(s) inaccessible. What’s reached is a bizarre, heady blend that doesn’t sacrifice its far flung kookiness for frozen dinner-esque simplicity. I for one respect swinging for the fences.
And swing for fences Bruce McDonald does. He never stalls, never hesitating on an opportunity to ratchet up the weird, just pitch after pitch he does his own thing. The material at hand is sharp and original, bending free of conventions, playing with everything from sound waves (there is a bass frequency resonating low throughout the movie like a growling creature ready to roar) to the human need for connectivity with others to the English language itself.
The whole production is a carefree freak of nature, which I say with great endearment. Bruce McDonald wasn’t afraid to make a film so far outside the box it makes the box itself look like a straight line. PONTYPOOL knows it is weird, knows it sits at a lunch table all its own but doesn’t care. It rages and raves in its own dense atmosphere of “What If?”, which I respect.
You won’t be seeing another movie like PONTYPOOL any time soon, that’s for sure.