Relaxer Review: A Grimy, ’90s-Nostalgia Fueled Endurance Test

Relaxer! David Dastmalchian and Joshua Burge in Joel Potrykus' RELAXER! (Oscilloscope)

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 PotrykusRelaxer 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 is there is) is confined entirely to a single room in the deplorable apartment Abbie (Joshua Burge, The Revenant) shares with his abusive brother, Cam (David Dastmalchian, Ant-Man), who forces Abbie to participate in “challenges,” such as drinking a gallon of spoiled milk while clad only in his underwear, filming him so that others can enjoy his humiliation later. Despite the mistreatment he suffers at the hands of Cam (and virtually everyone else who’s brave enough to enter the disgusting hovel he calls a home), sympathy for Abbie is hard to come by. Pale and unformed as a larva, he’s whiny, needy, and so passive that there are times when you’re not sure if he’s still breathing. He doesn’t have to take Cam’s abuse, but apparently views it as an acceptable alternative to being out in the world and trying to make it on his own.

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 fear of technology, or a metaphor for how young people today are attached to their screens while real life passes them by. Cam’s “challenges,” and his filming them for the entertainment of others, are certainly meant to evoke modern viral videos of people swallowing spoonfuls of cinnamon or performing the “Bird Box challenge,” blindfolding themselves while trying to cook or drive a car. It’s all those things. It’s also none of those things.

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 resourceful, and that it makes him stronger than Cam. To ask “Why doesn’t he just get up off the couch?” is missing the point. Abbie knows this is an option, even that it’s the only option that makes sense. It’s merely the one he refuses to take, because it means Cam has won.

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 wants, but opts not to, until he is almost literally frozen in time.

Relaxer Trailer
Liked it? Take a second to support The Spool on Patreon!