Anyone with more than a passing interest in the weird and wonderful will have seen, if not heard of, the Patterson-Gimlin footage, the cryptoozological equivalent of the Zapruder film.
Shot in 1967 in the forests of Northern California, it purports to show a large, ape-like creature with an elongated forehead striding purposefully into the trees. Unlike an ape, the creature walks upright, and unlike the furtive behavior of any other forest creature, it has the casual air of the average human being popping over to the 7-Eleven to pick up a gallon of milk.
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Most people who see the footage wonder what the hell this damn thing is. But the sibling directors of Sasquatch Sunset have a couple more questions that they’d like answered. Like, where is it going? And what does it do all day?
If, like David and Nathan Zellner, you have ever pondered the quotidian life of the Sasquatch, aka Bigfoot, then this is the movie for you, an at-times silly comedy that somehow reels you into its strange, hypnotic world. It’s worth mentioning upfront that, though it top-lines Jesse Eisenberg and Riley Keough, neither actor is really visible in any appreciable way, unless you’re a super-fan of either and you really hone in on the creatures’ eyes.
But somehow, the Zellners pull it off, taking a premise that could so easily have become Trash Humpers in the Woods, and delivering instead a warm and thoughtful study of nature and its hierarchies, of which we presume to be at the top.
Split into four chapters, from spring to winter, Sasquatch Sunset literally starts where the Patterson-Gimlin footage ends, except with four Sasquatches instead of one. Two of them seem to be a couple — Eisenberg and Keogh — but while copulating in the woods, they catch the attention of an alpha male (Nathan Zellner) and his son (Christophe Zajac-Denek).
The four become a tribe, communicating with grunts and triangulating their whereabouts by beating out primitive rhythms on the trees. They eat bushes, berries, and psychedelic mushrooms, and express themselves freely, like Rabelaisian Teletubbies, displaying all the bodily functions that human beings seek to suppress. And as one might expect from such a warts-and-all wildlife movie, there’s a genuine sense of peril that pays off in very unexpected and really quite moving ways.
It takes a little while to realize that there will be no framing device — take it or leave it, this is their world — and just when it seems to be going nowhere, the film’s thin vestige of a plot kicks in. The first clue is some fallen timber, spray-painted with a red X, the second is a man-made road, which prompts a very funny triple-take (a clear nod to mime artist Marcel Marceau, whose work was apparently a major touchstone during rehearsals). Are they edging closer to civilization, and will they finally be exposed? The tension becomes quite palpable; in an echo of Planet of the Apes and its famous ending, there’s a sense that the Sasquatches are entering a forbidden zone at their own risk.
In a strange way, Sasquatch Sunset forms an offbeat trilogy with the Zellners’ last two movies, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter (2014) and Damsel (2018), continuing the pair’s fascination with folkloric road movies that are more about the concept of searching than finding.
This time, though, a more substantial amount of the work is done by the duo’s increasingly sophisticated deployment of the score by experimental Texas “indietronica” band The Octopus Project, and a soundtrack that begins as the sort of abstract Celtic synth music you might hear while having a New Age hot-stones massage, and then mutates into free jazz and even 1990s pop, resulting in a memorable scene that suggests that, contrary to popular belief, music does not always soothe the savage beast.
It’s notable, then, that writer and codirector David Zellner wrote the closing song “Creatures of Nature,” which is sung by Keough and features the refrain, “The creatures of nature don’t care if you like them.” Whatever they are, neither does the Sasquatch. But 90 minutes in their unfathomable, shameless company is a lot more fun than you might reasonably expect.
Title: Sasquatch Sunset
Festival (Section): Sundance (Premieres)
Distributor: Bleecker Street
Directors: David Zellner, Nathan Zellner
Screenwriter: David Zellner
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Riley Keough, Christophe Zajac-Denek, Nathan Zellner
Running time: 1 hr 30 min
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