Friday 3 January 2020

On a Thousand Walls #26: The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot (2018)

There is a way to phrase a title that raises an expectation, to tell you about style, tone and content. For example, let's look at the early work of George Lucas, because it's an easy one. Star Wars (as Episode IV: A New Hope was simply called on release) is a pair of booming, declarative, internally alliterative monosyllables that almost have their own echo. It is the title of a film where a planet gets blown up, and if it does not disappoint in that department, that's less of a surprise than you might think. The title of American Graffiti, meanwhile, suggests a sentimental approach to the indiscretions of youth – you may be ambivalent towards the concept of graffiti, or for that matter the concept of America, but juxtaposition of the two makes both better. Graffiti is just writing on walls, but American graffiti is something to feel nostalgic for. On the other hand, there's something brutalist about THX-1138. Something that evokes the mechanistic, the Soviet (or, more accurately, the Western idea of the Soviet). And indeed it's a bleak, chilly sort of film. Not Soviet, though. THX-1138 is very much a capitalist dystopia. It's the future Elon Musk wants.

But. The point is, there's a lot in a title. Repo Man. Excalibur. Jupiter Ascending. Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story. Apocalypse Now. The Shining. The title is a vital part of your engagement going in, and creates an expectation, or inspires investigation into a mystery, or simply tells you what sort of film you're watching.

It's actually very rare that a title is apparently made with the intention of wrongfooting you. And it's sort of complex how The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot does that. To talk about those expectations, there will necessarily be, as ever, spoilers.

It's 1979. We meet an aging, softly spoken man named Calvin Barr (Sam Elliott). He is honest, decent, and unassuming, and he lives alone with his dog. Towards the beginning of the film, Calvin is victim to an attempted mugging, as he leaves the local bar. Three guys, big guys, try to take his money and his car. He tries to reason with them. He asks them to leave him alone, even when they demonstrate petty, bullying cruelty. And when they won't, he beats all three of them into a pulp. And while he does this with practiced ease, and leaves them, lying unconscious in the street, and then disables the gun one of them has with the professional efficiency of a man skilled in military tradecraft.. And he's old, and it physically hurts him to to do this, but he's got the stones for it, because in 1944 his younger self (as played by Aidan POLDARK Turner) was the crack secret agent who assassinated Hitler.

Barr gets the attention of the FBI. People are dying north of the border. There's a plague. And patient zero is Bigfoot. That Bigfoot. The Sasquatch. The mythical man-ape of the American Northwest. And Barr is reluctant, but he's not the first guy they've asked, and he agrees to head up to the forest, and he tracks down and kills the Bigfoot.

And that's it, I suppose, but you have to understand that this is in no way an accurate summary of the film.
The title “The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot”, in its breathless, pulpy phrasing, suggests a breathless, pulpy movie, a cult film, in its essence. But the title is hiding something from you, in plain sight. Because you go in expecting a film that is about the killing of Hitler and then the killing of (the) Bigfoot. And the opening titles emulate a 70s B movie. It raises expectations. And part of this is to do with how genre cinema works. Because genre cinema is traditionally plot-driven, we expect the action to lead the movie. Because films like this are about stuff that happens, and decisively not about the people.

But in fact while you do in fact see both Hitler and the Bigfoot copping it, neither of these things are what this film is about or even its primary focus. Because the film is in fact not really about these actions. It is about the man that did them. And the killings of both Hitler and the Bigfoot aren't just anticlimactic, they're explicitly framed as anticlimaxes.

When the two agents, the American with a US flag pin (Ron Livingston) and the French-Canadian (Rizwan Manji), come for Barr and ask him to go north and kill the Bigfoot, one of them talks about his grandad, going senile, told wild stories about the secret service legend Calvin Barr. He talks about a myth. A hero.
Flag Pin: But I want to return to my grandfather now, and something that he told me once in his stories about war and fighting men. He didn’t know how it was done for certain, but – my grandfather, he said that someone killed –
Barr: Yes. I did. The Germans. They moved a lot. And I moved with them. I shadowed the Reich back and forth across their ill-gotten lands, and I moved when they moved, until the time was right. Until I knew where he was. Until I knew it was him. And I caught up with him.
Flag Pin: There she is.
Barr: The Germans covered it up. And so did we. And history marched on, just like you read about. By the time I got to that miserable man, his words had grown beyond him. And his ideas continued to do all the damage they could possibly do without him. That day I just killed a man. What he stood for was unstoppable.
Maple Leaf: Sorry? This is, uh, World War Two?
Barr: The Nazis, they had their phonies all lined up. Three, maybe four of them. By the time the Russians put a lid on Berlin – Project VALKYRIE, a success, they got number two – the last one was a coward and a womaniser, but a coward first. Shot himself in a bunker. Killed his dog, too. What do you think that little moustache was for? The hair? The uniform? The entire look. It was a costume. All part of a plan. It’s easy to fool the stupid and the willing. What I did that day didn’t mean a thing. I just killed a man. The monster lived on. And in the end, the war was won by heroes, not me. Do you understand? It’s nothing like the comic book you want it to be! Now you know. Are you happy?
Barr shoots Hitler, and it's just a bullet in a man's chest. The story about how Hitler didn't really die in that bunker in '45, and how he died at the hands of whatever movie protagonist were following right now, that's one of the most potentially infuriating clichés of genre fiction. It's a wish fulfilment and it's at worst a Holocaust dodge. It's got no business being used in this particular decade of the 21st century. But The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot takes pains to undermine that trope.

Although the lead up to Barr's assassination of the Führer begins as an exercise in myth making, as the story continues, the trope falls apart.

Barr walks through enemy lines in an SS uniform. And he sees the victims of Nazism, prisoners on their way to the train that will take them to their exterminatinon. He walks through the Holocaust. (Note: some of them, by the way, are wearing pink triangles, which is not a thing you see so much.)

In genre fiction, Nazis are cartoon villains. A costume, as Barr says. This film signifies the cost of Nazism, and then in explicit dialogue calls out the assassination of Hitler as empty wish fulfilment. You know what Nazis do when you kill Hitler? They get another Hitler. And then they carry on doing what they were doing anyway.

No matter how retro-styled this film is, it cannot have been made other than in Trump’s America. It is the only responsible way to approach Nazism in film in the final years of the 2010s. It’s easy to fool the stupid and the willing. And if the political scene on both sides of the Atlantic have taught us anything in the last couple years, it’s absolutely that.
Whatever this did to Barr, a shy, quiet man, it paralysed and haunted him. He had the courage to walk into Adolf Hitler's office and put a bullet in him, but he had to vanish to do it, and he couldn't even propose to Maxine, the love of his life (Caitlin Fitzgerald) and when he gets back, he cannot bring himself to find her. And he lives with his sadness, and his regret, and his loneliness. He maintains a relationship with his brother Ed (Larry Miller) without ever really being close. And he keeps a box which contains something terribly precious, terribly meaningful.

When he goes up there and tracks down Bigfoot. And Bigfoot is scrawny, and old, and sick. Bigfoot is pathetic and tragic. The eventual death-struggle is not clean, or dignified, or heroic, or uplifting. And when he gets back, for a second time he's thought dead. But Calvin reconnects with Ed, and he gets his box back, and it is if the killing of a myth has killed his own myth, and he can grow old gracefully.

We don't get to see what is in the box.

For many critics and commentators, this particular part of The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot has been frustrating, rage-inducing, even. And let's be honest. This is a film that deliberately and carefully sets up a specific set of expectations in order to dash them. This is a risky thing to do.

You wanted a pulpy, retro-themed tale of heroic adventure? Hah! Take that, nerd!
Now I'm naturally inclined to hold macho pulpy bullshit in contempt, and so I'm probably exactly the sort of person who is predisposed to enjoy a film like this. And I did, very much. But pitching your movie to raise the hopes of your most likely audience and then crush their expectations could quite possibly be seen as a bit of a dick move, frankly.

The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot, then, is a measured study of exquisite sadness, regret, and the way that myths often hide a prosaic truth. But to make this movie, the traditional pleasures of genre cinema are systematically withheld from the audience. The box remains shut.

I think we need films like this, correctives to triumphalist narratives, films that recognise that cartoon villains are the result of banal, mundane evil. I do sort of wish, though, that the film didn't feel like it had to cheat its audience to do it.