Monday, January 23, 2017

I dare you. (The Alchemist Cookbook, 2016)

The Alchemist Cookbook (2016) is structured around long, largely wordless sections. That wordlessness becomes almost electric, wrapped in the sound of machinery operating, the sawing and clink of science apparatus, and dark, funny music from Detroit's underground music scene. That feeling of "when are they gonna talk?" impatience never develops. Words aren't missing from the scenes, they were never meant to be there.

So much of this feeling is sustained by the film's complete confidence in Ty Hickson's now-careful and now-unhinged performance as Sean, our back-woods science/dark-magic obsessive. We watch him saw the copper-top off a battery, dripping its innards into a test tube. We see burners, smoke, an old tape-deck, chemical reactions. From the film's title we suspect he's trying to make gold out here in a cramped trailer deep in the woods. We hear the promises he makes his cat about a mansion they'll share, full of doritos. We hear the threats he hollers at something in the lake, standing in the boat and dropping heavy stones to deliver his words down into the water.

There's something exciting and rare about a movie that trusts its audience, trusts its actors, trusts itself. Nothing is is outright explained, but everything is there to be understood. We piece it together.

As the film progresses, the experiments escalate, veering further from science and dangerously close to dark-magic. A tense failed ritual is interrupted by a visit from Sean's cousin who regularly brings our main character supplies, who teases him for being quite obviously around the bend. Teases him gently, though, and who is there because taking care of your family is what you do.

Sean goes over the grocery list, item by item, anxious and angry, demanding to know where each missing thing is, dismissing the items he does find. ("dude?" he holds up a microscope. "This a toy?" His cousin nods, pleased. "Mh hmm! Mh hmm! Dollar store always got that cute shit!") When they get to the cat food, Sean blows up. His cousin has brought the wrong cat food.

"I specifically put CURRY brand." Sean says. "In capital letters."

His cousin gets up, very casually, and takes a look at the offered can. Confident. "Look at this. White tuna in this bitch, dog, are you trippin?" his cousin says, "This is the shit man if Cas don't like this shit I'll eat it."

And with zero hesitation, Sean responds, "Really?"

"Hell yeah, this shit is gourmet!"

"Go on ahead and eat it," Sean says then. His list and grocery bags are forgotten. There is a brief pause and then, "I dare you." Arms crossed. Face deadly serious.

"you dare me?" his cousin is incredulous.

"I fucking dare you." Sean says. He nods at the cat food. "Eat it."

Instead of a gross out scene, something played for broad laughs, what follows is restrained and understated. Sean's cousin builds up the courage to eat the cat food, big talk and bravado the whole time, while Sean refuses to let him back down. It is a very real and very sweet moment of friendship, right smack in the middle of a movie about losing your soul.

Watching this movie, I had absolutely no idea where it would go next. It was surprising, sweet, dark, and deeply fucking strange. It might not be for everyone, but if you take it on its own terms, I think you will find something special. A lot of big horror movies have been released in the past few years, with huge budgets and great special effects, but The Alchemist Cookbook, made by a bunch of very talented weirdos out in the woods, is the movie that won my heart.

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