The Unexpected Delight of “Sasquatch Sunset”

In movies as in life, never assume. One of the joys of being a film critic is encountering surprising work from filmmakers whose habits seemed all too ingrained. Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie,” a spectacular fantasy from a director whose previous films were realistic, is one such splendid surprise; another is Bruno Dumont’s “Li’l Quinquin,” a flamboyant three-hour-plus feature that marked a decisive break with his earlier, more dour work. “Sasquatch Sunset,” a new movie by the independent filmmakers David and Nathan Zellner, offers the same kind of unexpected delight. This scruffy but finely nuanced drama follows an unusual group of characters: four Sasquatches—mythical beings better known singly, as Bigfoot—making their way through the forests of the Pacific Northwest in the course of a year. For the Zellners, the film’s sincere attention to the practicalities of its characters’ lives represents a major departure and a great advance. Their portrayal of the Sasquatches’ wanderings is a fictional form of cinematic anthropology, showing how the creatures cope with the elements, with the looming presence of humans, and with the deeper mysteries and energies of life—including the rising of consciousness itself.

The Zellners, who are brothers, have been working together for nearly three decades. They’ve built a career dramatizing near-absurdities, whether grim or merely eccentric, with earnest intensity. (They directed three episodes of “The Curse,” a satire of reality TV.) In their 2012 feature, “Kid-Thing,” a neglected child connects with a woman trapped at the bottom of a well. In “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter,” a Japanese woman who believes that the movie “Fargo” is a documentary travels to America in search of that tale’s buried ransom money.

The brothers have long had mythic simians in view: in 2011, their short film “Sasquatch Birth Journal 2,” a clever four-minute goof depicting a female of the species giving birth unassisted, played at Sundance. Their work until now has depended on keeping straight faces while telling tall tales, but in “Sasquatch Sunset” they approach a still taller tale with a seriousness that drives out parody, and the movie thrums with palpable pleasure arising from their own sense of wonder and curiosity. They’ve previously bent reality to fit their fantasies; now, in trimming fantasy to resemble reality, they display a deepened artistic purpose.

The four Sasquatches don’t speak; they only grunt and howl, as if lurching toward language. They’re bearded and covered in brown-gray fur, which is sparser on their chests and stomachs; their skin is thick and wrinkled. These looks are achieved not by way of motion capture (as in the ongoing “Planet of the Apes” franchise) but with costumes and makeup, which, amid tangles of fur and crusts of dirt, leave the performers’ faces discernible. The Zellners recruited four notable actors—or, rather, three and a ringer—to endow these difficult mime-like parts with potent individual personalities. Riley Keough portrays the group’s only female, who’s raising a lively and inquisitive young Sasquatch, played by Christophe Zajac-Denek. The pensive and mild-mannered member of the group, played by Jesse Eisenberg, is subordinate to its apparently senior member, portrayed by the co-director Nathan Zellner. If not a famous actor, Zellner is certainly an experienced one (largely in the brothers’ own films), and he brings psychodramatic authority to the role of the foursome’s alpha male—essentially a Sasquatch directing Sasquatches, with the power and the peril that such leadership entails. (The four Sasquatches have no identifiable names; I’ll call them by their respective actors’ first names.)

The movie begins in springtime and quickly addresses the inevitable, showing Riley and Nathan brusquely hooking up. Jesse and Christophe, holding hands, look on in fascinated awe—Jesse perhaps teaching the young Christophe the birds and the bees—while the couple, out in the open, displays no shyness. The Zellners imagine Sasquatch sex at an intermediate stage between animals’ functional reproduction and humans’ governing morality—fraught with feeling but not with shame. The result of this liaison is the eternal drama: Riley, scratching her genitals and sniffing her hand, determines that she’s pregnant, setting in motion the film’s overarching plotline.

The movie depicts a wide spectrum of Sasquatch life—the need for shelter, the varieties of play, the pleasures and pitfalls of eating newly discovered flora and fauna, the experience of grief and the rituals that it spawns, the Promethean hazards of intellectual curiosity, the trouble sparked by lust. In doing so, it reveals admirable conceptual audacity, skirting the constant risk of silliness. It’s often funny, but it’s no comedy, except to the extent that ordinary life is filled with incongruities and weird surprises. When funny things happen to the Sasquatches, the species’ naïveté pushes the humor toward danger, as when Christophe kisses a turtle that then bites his tongue and won’t let go, or when Nathan rages with horny delusions while standing in uneasy proximity to a cougar. The movie comes by its sweetness naturally, in the inherent cuteness of such ingenuousness—which is also the secret weapon of children and animals, of reality-TV celebrities (whether horrible bosses or selfish spouses), and even of documentary subjects (the rich and the famous who come off as ordinary people). In the Zellners’ other films, the action seems fabricated to yield images of twee idiosyncrasy—a woman trudging through snowy fields while wrapped in a quilt, a pioneer unloading a miniature horse from a crate on a beach—but there’s nothing contrived about the action or the images here, which feel like logical yet spontaneous discoveries about these four mysterious characters and their hidden world.

“Sasquatch Sunset” shows no humans but is haunted by the possibility of contact with them. Its neorealism demythologizes the cryptids, presenting them as just another endangered species whose fragile existence is made all the more poignant by its similarities to human society. (After a viewing of this movie, the nickname Bigfoot comes off like a slur.) The cast’s blend of choreographic precision and uninhibited animal energy is at the core of this authenticity; the actors’ mastery of their crudely expressive gestures conveys delicate emotions, and their grunts and hoots possess the dramatic flair and nuance of dialogue. What the movie offers, in effect, are baby pictures of the human race, and it respects the opacity of the primal experience that such infancy implies. Even as the film abounds in behavioral details, rendering its four protagonists’ personalities in sharp outlines, it never presumes to know too much about them; the movie shows what Sasquatches are like without assuming what it’s like to be a Sasquatch.

Though it’s not established that Riley is Christophe’s mother, she at least acts like a devoted one—he seems like an adolescent, but she’s still nursing him, and she also plucks the bugs from his fur (and eats them). When the newborn comes, she caresses and nurses and (when necessary) rescues it; wandering with the group while carrying the baby, she exhibits a keen alertness to hidden dangers. The tenderhearted Jesse has an incipient mathematical mind—gazing at the stars, he tries to count them but has only two numerals (“euh” and “ah”). His thoughtfulness converges with his communal spirit: when he finds a nest with four eggs, he picks it up and exerts himself to discern whether there are enough of them for each Sasquatch in his group. This effort is quickly rendered obsolete when the gruff, hulking Nathan, whose appetites are matched by his arrogance, relieves him of the nest and eats the eggs himself, leaving Jesse to look forlornly at his empty hand.

That gesture is one of many psychologically resonant moments that endow “Sasquatch Sunset” with its outsized power; it suggests the dawn of human-style imagination, the capacity to inwardly evoke an absent object. The finest such touch involves Christophe, who takes a step of Sasquatch imagination that amounts to a giant leap for Sasquatchkind. When the trio can’t find Nathan, Christophe searches for him in a distinctive way—he holds a hand in front of himself and, like a ventriloquist, has it talk to him in inchoate squeaks, to which he responds. It’s a breathtaking dramatic metaphor for the birth of thought, the awareness of consciousness as something like an other that’s also part of oneself.

With consciousness comes melancholy, which is induced for the Sasquatches by mounting clues of human proximity—a tree with a painted red “X,” a paved road, a well-appointed but unpeopled campsite. The Sasquatches move from defiant contempt of these artifacts’ strangeness (they mock and defile the road with piss and shit) to a growing recognition that the world they’ve discovered, complete with its rusting hulks of metal machinery and its inhospitable expanses of asphalt, is inimical to their survival. It’s only in a final shot of calculated theatricality that the Zellners tip their hands that the entire project is, after all, not just a work of fiction but a thoroughgoing fantasy. Here, they reveal the greatest danger that humans pose to Sasquatches: not the reasoned belief that they don’t exist but the mythologizing certainty that they do. ♦

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