By Adam Nayman
Dir. Bruce McDonald, Canada, IFC Films
Since its bow last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival, Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool—adapted from Canadian author Tony Burgess’s 1998 novel Pontypool Changes Everything and developed as a radio play before cameras were added to the equation—has been unfailingly described by supporters and doubters alike as a “semiotic zombie movie.” It’s a catchy descriptor—especially at a time when regular zombie movies both bad (28 Weeks Later) and worse (Diary of the Dead) are dutifully probed for semiotic heft—but it’s been applied so many times as to lose all meaning. This is appropriate given that it’s a pandemic of mindless repetition that brings about McDonald’s intimate vision of apocalypse.
Pontypool’s zombies (billed in the credits as the “Conversationalists”) are the residents of the small Southern Ontario town that gives the film its name and wintry backdrop. The premise is that Pontypool is the epicenter of a language-based psychosis that turns the afflicted (who turn out to be anybody within earshot of the infected) into dead-eyed shufflers whose mouths are stuck hopelessly on repeat—that is, when they’re not chowing down on fellow human beings. For most of the film, the Conversationalists remain off-screen, heard but not seen, their increasingly brutal activities limited to the panicked descriptions coming in over the phone lines at CSLY, Pontypool’s stalwart local radio station, the vantage point from which McDonald has smartly chosen to observe the crisis. (Burgess’s novel, the first in a trilogy, offered a more panoramic end-of-days portrait.)
Having stumbled badly with the Godardian hi-jinks of The Tracey Fragments—2007’s other Ellen-Page-plays-an-acerbic-teenager-movie—McDonald here evacuates any pretense of avant-garde visuals (which also, sadly, means no Patti Smith songs accompanied by images of actual horses). Instead of futzing with direct address and multiple frames, the director goes for terse, uncluttered naturalism, sketching the layout of the station in a few quick shots and then just plunking his camera down with the principals. These would be: charismatic DJ Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie, familiar to millions as one of the thugs pulped by Viggo Mortensen in A History of Violence); even-keel producer Sydney (Lisa Houle); and prettily bored intern Laurel Ann (Georgina Reilly). Mazzy, it seems, is a former Toronto FM star slumming it in the boonies after losing his city gig. His contempt for the non-stories coming across the wire is evident, and he spikes his traffic updates and obituaries with poetic allusions designed to sail far over the heads of the station’s ice-fishing listenership. Station lifer Sydney doesn’t appreciate these antics, but she also has to keep the talent happy. Laurel Anne doesn’t raise her effort beyond her pay grade, but she does flash a series of covert, appreciative smiles in the DJ’s direction.
And for good reason: McHattie’s Mazzy is absolutely magnetic, all spectacular crags and scraggly stubble beneath his cowboy hat (a joke on his hipster director’s propensity for ten-gallon headwear). He validates that old cliché about actors reading the yellow pages: I’d wager that there’s nary an eaves-cleaning service that wouldn’t sound compelling if described via McHattie’s gargled-with-razorblades patter. There’s a real performance beneath these surface effects, too. Perhaps drawing on his own longtime experience as a below-the-title player, McHattie evinces the frustration of the professionally stifled. He gives us flamboyance in proportion to annoyance, constructing Mazzy’s staccato-autodidact act as a kind of defense mechanism—one that fails him once the foreshocks of the opening 30 minutes (a slow-boil build topped with an actual whistling kettle gag) give way to a rats-in-a-trap scenario that finds the CSLY crew barricading their doors against the nonsensical hordes outside.
Except that walls can’t keep this particular malady out. Gradually, Mazzy and co. realize that a) they’re no less susceptible to slippage than anybody else and b) their own broadcast has become a locus of danger (like when they accidentally translate a message being broadcast by the French-Canadian military). Pontypool peaks with an extended set piece in which Laurel succumbs to the virus and starts glowering scarily at Mazzy and Sydney through soundproof (but not shatterproof) glass. Our heroes must communicate without words, which attract the conversationalists like blood does a shark, and McDonald plays the situation for comedy (Mazzy is finally forced to shut up) as well as nervy suspense. Aided by sound designer Steve Munro, McDonald scores a series of aural knockouts; a shock cut is abetted in its intensity by the lack of a scare-chord on the soundtrack, and Laurel Anne’s literally headfirst attempt to reach her prey are rendered via an insistent (and increasingly squishy) series of thuds.
This is surely visceral stuff—as is a later, Romero-inspired showdown with a rabid child —but the fact that it’s as good as Pontypool gets has to be considered disappointing. On the one hand, McDonald and Burgess’s decision to limit our understanding of the language virus to that of the characters is an effective gambit—we’re bound to them in our shared sense of dislocation—and it’s kind of amusing that the designated “explainer” figure, an Armenian-Canadian doctor (Hrant Alianak) doesn’t really explain anything. On the other, it’s a bit of a dodge that prevents (or perhaps excuses) the film from really biting into the substance of “semiotic zombies.” The script hints in interesting directions: I can only follow critic Michael Sicinski’s lead in pointing out that the most dangerous words seem to be those that have been unfortunately Hallmarked as terms of endearment—a possible commentary on our degraded interpersonal discourse. And there is something very suggestive about the revelation that the virus gestates in English in a town that borders on Quebec, though damned if I, as a Canadian relatively sensitive to issues of separatism, can get any sort of handle on the implications.
And I’m not sure that the filmmakers can, either. In interviews, McDonald has played his cards close to the vest, insisting that his on-set concerns during what was a very short shoot (two weeks by most reports) were more practical than theoretical. I believe him. Pontypool’s best qualities are tactile—the hum of freshly plugged-in headphones, the frisson of fingertips against glass. And yet its thrust is increasingly abstract, so much so that Mazzy’s ultimate realization—that the only way to avoid becoming a mindless zombie is to grab the reins of defamiliarization and become the author of one’s incoherence—gets swallowed up in vagary. And the crackling B-movie moves that initially energized Pontypool go with him. Boiled down to its core themes, Pontypool seems to be saying that words minus deeper consideration can become a trap. In McDonald’s gradually unsteady hands, that equation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.