David and Nathan Zellner, the fraternal directing duo of offbeat films, have been captivated by Bigfoot since they were children. To them, Bob Gimlin and Robert Patterson’s roughly one-minute 1967 short — jerky and grainy footage of an ape-like creature strolling the banks of Bluff Creek in Northern California — is as legendary as the mythic figure it claims to capture. In 2011, the Zellners premiered Sasquatch Birth Journal No. 2, a four-minute film that feels inspired by Gimlin-Patterson’s offering, at Sundance. Now, at the same festival, more than a decade later, the brothers have taken their obsession one step farther with a film that imagines the life of a mythic humanoid.
Who is the Sasquatch to herself? To others? How does she love, fight, play and survive? How about travel? Can she communicate? What are her rituals? Sasquatch Sunset is built on these curiosities and sustained by striking formal choices. The sometimes tender but often trying film chronicles a year in the life of a Sasquatch family. The four members of this small tribe of Bigfoots are played by Riley Keough, Jesse Eisenberg, Christopher Zajac-Denek and Nathen Zellner. They are rendered unrecognizable by Steve Newburn’s impressive “creature” design, which conceals their bodies under layers of desert-brown fur and transforms their faces so they resemble primates. It’s worth noting that this cast of fine actors don’t say any words throughout the film, but they manage to deliver grounding performances with their grunts, screams and wild gesticulations.
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Your ability to laugh, appreciate or endure Sasquatch Sunset will depend on your tolerance for slapstick humor. The Sasquatches fart loudly, stress poop, and pee everywhere. There is no shortage of penis jokes or body gags, and that can make the film feel one-note in the comedy department. A couple sitting near me during the film’s premiere at Sundance embodied the impact of this at once endearing and alienating movie. “Can we leave?” urged one half of the pair. The other person shook their head no, wanting to see what happened next. Sasquatch Sunset was working on that viewer.
That’s ultimately what this movie can do, if you don’t think too hard. The Zellners’ fondness for wacky scenarios, the film’s unexpected turns and its deep appreciation for the natural world culminate in a project at once committed to a comedic bit that overstays its welcome and a somewhat poignant narrative competing for space and attention.
The film is divided into four chapters, each titled after the corresponding season. We start in “Spring” somewhere in a presumably Northern California forest. With their DP, Michael Gioulakis, the Zellners offer beautiful images of the woodland. Mossy greens sharply contrast against the warm browns of tree trunks and dirt. The sky — a cloudy azure during the day and navy at night — is inviting. There’s an immersive soundscape too: Water babbles, birds chirp and insects whine about who knows what.
Sasquatch Sunset initially approaches its subjects — a fictional family of Sasquatches — with the same reverence and observational style of nature documentaries. It opens with furtive shots, as if these moments of the Sasquatches chomping on ferns or milling through the forest were captured by researchers at a distance. This family lives a relatively quiet life. They build routines around mealtime (foraging for berries); leisure (counting the stars, for example); and sex.
That last activity becomes a problem when one of the Sasquatches (Zellner) keeps trying to have sex with the only female Sasquatch (played by Keough) in the group. Their interactions are played as a joke, but they’re mostly unnerving. The horny Sasquatch refuses to accept Keough’s rejections, which eventually leads the others (played by Eisenberg and Zajac-Denek) to banish him.
The relationship between the four creatures becomes somewhat clear over the course of this dramatic arc — Keough’s Sasquatch is partnered with Eisenberg’s and together they raise Zajac-Denek — but I still had questions about how this group found each other in the first place.
This is a struggle Sasquatch Sunset repeatedly runs into as it strives to be an “accurate” portrayal of a fictional creature. The Zellners’ comedy relies on this ape-like family acting with an infantile unfamiliarity with the world, which makes you wonder how they have managed to survive this long. Perhaps it’s a mark of success that the Zellners are able to pull you in enough that you start asking your own questions about the family and their behavior. But I think it says more about the limits of this film, which constantly seems to be testing how far the gimmicky exercise can go. I wondered are these strictly nomadic creatures? How long have they been living in this forest? Who is Zellner’s aggressive and bumbling Sasquatch to the other three?
Humiliated and still horny, Zellner’s Sasquatch lumbers through the forest. He stumbles upon a mushroom that looks like it’s been borrowed from Alice in Wonderland and eats it. That decision leads to some humor followed by a tragedy. David Zellner’s screenplay mimics the tragicomic rhythm of human lives, attempting to emotionally connect the audiences to this family.
At the heart of this movie is a story about family, strength and survival. Keough’s Sasquatch — keen and sensitive — emerges as a kind of protagonist. As the Zellners get deeper into the narrative, they abandon their more detached observational style for an increasingly intimate vantage point. Close-ups make good use of Keough’s expressiveness, offering enough information in each chapter to piece together the emotional arc of her storyline.
The character is at once a vision of strength, demonstrating her superiority by outsmarting the men around her, and the punchline of some of the film’s crudest humor. There’s an unshakeable melancholy there, too, especially early on when she discovers she is pregnant. But the film’s interest in that feels fleeting. As “Spring” leads to “Summer,” which collapses into “Fall,” the female Sasquatch’s belly grows, and after the birth of her baby Bigfoot Sasquatch Sunset leans more heavily into motherhood as a theme. How will Keough’s Sasquatch protect her family, filled with men whose critical thinking skills could use some work?
In the background of this narrative is a more existential crisis of the woodland. Each season brings a dramatic change to the Sasquatches’ home. As humans watching this adventure, we recognize the signs of our own encroachment: Trees are cut down, leaving patches of the forest without protection; traps are laid. The environment revolts, which threatens the Sasquatches’ way of living. Here, the Zellners depend a little less on their one-note humor — and embrace something more real.
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