Joel Potrykus’ ’90s-era
grossout character piece isn’t for the faint of heart, but it’s worth checking out if you’ve got the stomach.
Sometimes you watch a movie and you figure out early into it that it’s not for you. Maybe you just can’t connect with the characters, or the world it’s building is too unfamiliar. At that point you have to make a decision: either you turn it off and go about the rest of your life without ever thinking about it again, or you see it through and hope that either it will end up a movie for you after all, or at least, it won’t ruin film as an art form for you.
Joel Potrykus’ Relaxer does neither of those things. It’s not a movie for me, but I’m not sure it’s for anyone else either. It is its own inscrutable beast, always weird, often grotesque, and never boring. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, because it’s profoundly unpleasant at times. At the same time, however, should you find yourself watching it, see it through to the end, because it will go to places you won’t imagine.
Relaxer doesn’t just take place in 1999, it’s an homage to 90s indie movies, with fast-talking characters speaking almost entirely in profanities and pop culture references, and everything is badly lit and covered in a layer of grime. The action (such
Cam sets up Abbie for his biggest “challenge” yet: beat level 256 of Pac-Man, an impossible task due to the real-life split screen glitch that prevented players from completing the game. Despite the futility of it, Abbie agrees, even though it means he can’t leave the couch until he finishes, not even to eat or use the restroom. Cam gives him until the end of year (when he believes that Y2K will bring the collapse of society), then inexplicably disappears. Even though days stretch into weeks and Cam doesn’t return, Abbie continues to play Pac-Man with grim determination, even through a cloud of insecticide, while at the same time resorting to capturing rainwater with a withered Styrofoam cup and, in one scene, eating boot leather to survive.
I could tell you more of what happens beyond a third act time jump, but it would both spoil the ending and sound like the ravings of a lunatic. Again, as off-putting as Relaxer is at times (of all the 90s filmmakers Potrykus emulates here, none is so apparent as Harmony Korine), it’s a fascinating movie. It’s fascinating mostly because you can apply virtually any meaning you want to it, and you’ll probably be correct. It could be about toxic masculinity, and how the only reason Abbie puts himself through any of this is to win the approval of Cam, his tough guy punk rocker brother. It could be
More than anything else, it’s about young male slackerdom, a well Potrykus has dipped from in his previous movies Ape and Buzzard, both also starring Burge. It’s impossible to tell how old Abbie is, but he’s clearly found begging for basic necessities like food and drink more amenable than trying to hold down a job. He’s somehow convinced himself that by drinking his own sweat he’s being
It’s a sort of 4D chess he’s playing with himself: bend to Cam’s will to such lengths that he becomes a human pretzel somehow will also give him the upper hand over Cam (that the brothers’ relationship has some squirmy BDSM subtext to it is but one more reason I can’t say this is a movie that’s going to have universal appeal). But don’t we all know someone who has chosen a life of passivity and toxic dependence—whether on relatives, friends, or lovers—over having to become part of the nine to five grind? We don’t know why Abbie lives the way he does. All we know is that it was a choice. He could leave whenever he