The forest has always been an essential breeding ground for cinematic insanity, and it’s not hard to imagine why; after all, the things closest to us but which we have really have only begun to understand are among the most terrifying. Writer/Director Joel Potrykus uses the woodlands to summon a consistent air of dread in his latest genre-defying curio, THE ALCHEMIST COOKBOOK, though it’s hardly the sole location herein whose deep-seeded hallucinatory horrors are so cleverly uprooted throughout the film’s tight, disconcerting narrative.
Ty Hickson, a relative newcomer with only a few credits to his name, stars as Sean, a mentally unstable young man who lives in a trailer somewhere in the woods where he can be alone with only himself and his cat Kaspar to practice alchemy as a means of acquiring a fortune. It’s clear that Sean’s pill-popping may be the source of his wild ambition, but at the very least he’s committed, and his friend Cortez (a hilarious Amari Cheatom) visits often to ensure that he’s got plenty of food, tools, and has his prescription refilled to boot. As good of a friend as Cortez is, he is far from perfect, and one day he forgets to bring the meds.
Before we can even begin to settle down within the pitch-perfect representation of Sean’s unbalanced psyche, he’s dabbling in black magic as a means of speeding up his process; which of course could potentially be the final nail in the coffin for our tragically delusional friend. It’s at this point that the mood shifts from that of a breezy and often hilarious hang-out pic (in which one of the two people involved only sometimes shows up) with subtle macabre flourishes to a genuinely disturbing body horror film, and it’s the seemingly effortless way in which the narrative alternates between the two – and others as well – that makes it so unforgettable.
The Michigan-based Potrykus prefers to work with restrained budgets and unhinged characters, challenges and limitations which seem to have worked in his favor thus far (this is his third feature, after 2012’s APE and 2014’s BUZZARD). The simplicity of the build-up benefits the lasting ambience of the truly haunting payoff; it’s ultimately more effectively horrifying than the majority of straight genre efforts. In Sean’s phantasmagorical fantasy world, the forest is very much alive with beastly bellowing, low growls, and big splashes (in the wetland areas). No animal, not even a seemingly innocent possum, can be trusted other than the faithful feline, who should be commended for the magnitude of the madness he puts up with here. Everything with any semblance of purity is reduced to savage animalism in the end, and perhaps that is what the film is really about – going backwards through forced progress. Sometimes, we must let nature take its course, for it works in mysterious ways.
Potrykus dares to find beauty in Sean’s plight, and the fact that he does so in spades is no easy feat. The character’s misery is entirely of his own making, though the implication seems to be that there’s still time for Sean to redeem himself. There’s also a great deal of humor to be wrought from Sean and Cortez’s interactions, with one scene in particular involving the consumption of cat food being a prime example of pure, thoroughly awkward observational comedy. Absurdism runs through this whole strange exercise, though there’s an honest sadness in Sean’s eventual transformation. We’ve been so up close and personal with the unlikely protagonist leading up to this point that there’s absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t be made to witness his ultimate decline on a similarly intimate scale. We grow to like the guy – a lot – in spite of his flaws, though luckily this feels more like fate than outright punishment.
Empathy is the key and love is the spirit. THE ALCHEMIST COOKBOOK is certainly a strange one by any conventional standards, but it’s just not that simple. There is real humanity here, both in its passionate ode to the benefits of solitude itself and its singular tale of a man running out of nature and losing himself to what’s left of it. Its commitment to staying well within the boundaries of its protagonist’s headspace brings to mind the similar triumphs of John Hancock’s LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH, the effects of which are genuinely devastating. Potrykus is more than just one of the most singular minds in contemporary American independent cinema; here, he’s solidified himself even further as one of the most important voices for the outcasts of the silver screen and the damned spaces they occupy. His latest is akin to a waking nightmare – of a similar essence to the abandoned dinghy in the middle of the pond that just begs to be investigated further – and yet it brings such profound joy.