(The 2018 SXSW Film Festival kicked off March 9 and runs all the way through to March 17. Hammer to Nail has a slew of reviews and interviews coming in hot and heavy so keep your dial tuned to HtN!)
Though his stories are not connected by recurring characters, writer-director Joel Potrykus has developed an incredibly unique cinematic universe with an eerily consistent tone that spans his four features. His latest, Relaxer, marks his third consecutive film to premiere at South by Southwest. Each of his features seems to build upon its predecessors as Potrykus continues to fine-tune his art. With Relaxer, Potrykus really scales things back in terms of form, utilizing one very claustrophobic apartment to convey the entire story.
With the constant prodding of Cam (David Dastmalchian), Abbie (Joshua Burge) believes his only opportunity to make money is if he can complete a “challenge.” At the onset of Relaxer, Abbie finds himself midway through one such challenge. He must drink a series of baby bottles filled with warm, spoiled milk without spilling or vomiting.
Cam uses a duct-taped camcorder to record Abbie as he attempts to complete the challenge, presumably to document the event and collect their winnings. But from the get-go, we are left to question the validity of these challenges. Is Cam just screwing around with the naive and vulnerable Abbie, or do they exist in a world that financial rewards people who record themselves doing stupid (and dangerous) stuff? If it is the latter, is that much different than the real world?
Abbie certainly takes his next challenge seriously. His mission, to do the impossible: to conquer the unbeatable level 256 on Pac-Man. Although Cam leaves the apartment, Abbie remains steadfast in his quest to win this ultimate challenge. Why? Because there is big money at stake. Hundreds of thousands of dollars if he completes the challenge. Meanwhile, the Y2K apocalypse is quickly approaching.
Potrykus’ camera never leaves Abbie, trapping us inside the cloistered environment and forcing us to experience Abbie’s reality. With hints of magic realism sprinkled throughout the film, it becomes increasingly obvious that Abbie’s reality is not entirely reliable (or feasible). As time mysteriously passes, Abbie’s stability is brought into question. First and foremost, how does this video game- obsessed couch potato, who is quite literally stuck to the sofa, survive without any food or drink for months?
Despite the seemingly simple story, shot in one location, with only a few characters, Relaxer is open to a multitude of interpretations. The film seems to function as a critique on gaming culture, gambling addiction, and slackerdom. Abbie’s level of laziness is impressive, to say the least. With no desire to enter the real world or participate in the Capitalist system, Abbie’s mindset is quite similar to his cinematic predecessors – Trevor (Ape), Marty (Buzzard), and Sean (The Alchemist Cookbook) – and like his predecessors, Abbie is destined to fail.
The gritty cinematic worlds created by Potrykus make it difficult for slackers to survive, presumably because of their inherent laziness, ambivalence and naive expectations of the modern world. Their socioeconomic position, which has reduced them to nobodies, is self-ordained. They are not all that likable — they are quintessential fuck-ups — but it is difficult not to sympathize with their desire to exist. You might even consider them to be martyrs for the non-conformists of the world.
– Don Simpson (@thatdonsimpson)