Movie Pick of the Week

The Alchemist Cookbook

Director: Joel Potrykus

Year of release: 2016

Running time: 1 hour 22 minutes

Writer-director Joel Potrykus certainly loves his Midwestern weirdos and social malcontents. His last film, the darkly funny Buzzard, was all about how an anti-corporate goon gave the finger to the man by devising hilariously incompetent scams. Like that picture, his latest The Alchemist Cookbook, is tough to categorize and even tougher to fully embrace. This one centers on a loner named Sean (Ty Hickson) who spends every day out in the Michigan woods hacking down trees and then using mortar and other alchemical ingredients inside a cramped trailer. His only interactions are with his beloved cat, Kaspar, and friend Cortez (Amari Cheatom) who randomly drops by with supplies and sideways glances. There's talk of making money, delusions of grandeur, and the summoning of a demonic presence named Belial.

The Alchemist Cookbook is a strange one. It often plays like a lo-fi absurdist comedy; with long wordless scenes where Sean simply gulps Gatorade or chomps on Dorritos backed by heightened sound design. A gut-busting sequence where Cortez attempts to eat cat food to make an ego-driven point, is reminiscent of similar moments in Buzzard involving Bugles and a plate of spaghetti. Mostly, the film is about feeling disconnected from society and the ways in which mental illness can cause a schism in one's sense of self. Hickson's performance is nicely layered; blending humor, pathos, and unbridled fear when things start unraveling, and Potrykus films his moments mostly in long uninterrupted takes. The aforementioned use of sound is also often disorienting, leading to what could be seen in many quarters as the filmmaker's take on the horror genre.

As a semi-comedic encapsulation of how we often perpetuate our own nightmares, The Alchemist Cookbook is strangely moving. As an entry in the horror genre, it's a perplexing riff on how to use tonality and atmosphere to keep the audience off-balance. Either way, it's unquestionably a Joel Potrykus creation; and something which uniquely keys in on characters trapped on the fringes of society with nowhere to turn.