Written by: Tony Burgess
Directed by: Bruce McDonald
Starring: Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle and Georgina Reilly
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“It's not the end of the world, it's just the end of the day."
There’s a lot of chatter in Pontypool, a film that’s very talky in an insidiously scary way. It opens with a radio broadcast that’s almost soothing in its rhythm before it finally degenerates into an almost incoherent babble. You’re not aware of it at the time, but this is a prelude that encapsulates the film’s themes of language and communication. The speaker here continues to talk about a sign for a missing cat and insists “we’ve all seen the posters, but nobody has seen Honey the cat,” a statement that foreshadows the semiotic schism between signifier and sign that eventually informs the film. Pontypool surrounds you in this kind of chatter, and it’s not the earthy, natural overlapping chatter of Robert Altman, but rather, a distilled, almost frustrating sort of white noise that hums and hums before the film’s characters realize that language has become dangerous. This is the real terror of Pontypool, as it explores what happens when words lose meaning and begin to fail us.
The opening radio broadcast comes courtesy of Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), a former big time radio disc jockey who’s recently been relocated to Pontypool, a comparatively shitty little outpost of a town that’s more interested in traffic and weather reports. One morning, he encounters a strange girl who repeats and babbles at him before she retreats into the blizzard outside. Grant thinks of it as being nothing more than something to discuss on his show, but it ends up being a harbinger of things to come when some kind of riotous panic apparently breaks out across town, leaving Mazzy, his producer (Lisa Houle), and their assistant (Georgima Reilly) to brace themselves against the town population that’s been turned into a mindless horde.
Pontypool sounds like a zombie movie, and it’s not too far removed from one; however, the more accurate Romero reference point would be The Crazies. Not only is there a mindless herd involved like there was in that film, but it’s also concerned with the same sort of paranoia and terror that surrounds the breakdown of society. Pontypool even goes a step further by examining the implications of journalistic integrity and responsibility in these situations; communication is an obvious theme here, and the film brilliantly layers how even it breaks down in steps. At first, the trio at the radio station has trouble confirming any of the events that are occurring, but, before long, they find themselves refuting the claims of a BBC anchorman that their town is on the brink of a quarantine. One of the most incredibly stark openings to any film is the original Dawn of the Dead, which plops viewers right into the middle of a society engulfed by the hellish flames of misinformation and chaos; Pontypool shows how quickly we can get to that point, and it does so in a slice of life fashion. If Dawn of the Dead captures apocalyptic fervor, then Pontypool is an icier take on the beginning of the end.
This film’s most masterful stroke is digging in and further exploring how communication functions in such a setting. Situations in films like this often degenerate due to failures in communication, but Pontypool literalizes this by turning words into a virus that infects its victims by effectively turning their brains inside out. Certain words (like terms of endearment) have come carriers that burrow into a person’s brain, and they find themselves endlessly repeating these words until they mean nothing (we often do this ourselves via semantic satiation); at first, they simply seem to be stuck and confused, but they soon turn aggressive and attack the person with whom they’re attempting to communicate. As a simple allegory, this is pretty powerful stuff that again literalizes a universal conflict, and Pontypool acts as a parable for how one of our defining characteristics (language) can become meaningless and give way to violence. The political subtexts here are obvious, and Pontypool on some levels is about how mankind will eat itself from the inside because violence is easier than actual communication, especially when it’s wrapped up in a herd mentality.
However, as Pontypool digs deeper, it reveals something even more terrifying on a semiotic level. In many ways, our language and signification are our world; it might be composed of atoms and elements on a physical level, but we bring order to massive chaos by organizing things in a complex series of agreed-upon signs on a linguistic level--and it’s all completely arbitrary. Pontypool’s most horrifying move is revealing just how arbitrary and tenuous it all is. As the characters attempt to figure out some method of counter-attack, they consider the rather impossible solution of jumbling up signification by randomly assigning new meanings to words--“kill” becomes “kiss,” etc. Basically, they’ve got to rewire their brains in a way that won’t allow them to understand their own language as they know it, a solution that’ll likely drive them just as nuts as those who are actually infected. Many horror films offer terrifying scenarios where the walls close in on its characters in a physical sense--a slasher finally sneaks up on them or a zombie horde finally overwhelms them--but Pontypool squeezes on its characters’ minds in an agonizing fashion.
Beneath all of this babble is also a damn fine horror film--it’s icy, somber, and preys on the fear of the unknown in captivating fashion. Its “less is more” approach is masterful because the film literally reveals nothing on a visual level for a long stretch of time. Instead, you’re stuck with secondhand radio reports and confined with the characters in this lonely little radio station until the shit finally hits the fan. Watching the film, I couldn’t help but think that Bruce McDonald should have directed The Thing prequel/redux because his minimalist take captures the pure fear of the end of the world breaking out in the middle of nowhere. His film is wonderfully anchored by three fine performances, the most notable being McHattie’s; he’s got this wonderfully rhythmic and slinky voice that was made for radio, so much so that his Grant Mazzy practically simmers with a “what the hell am I doing here?” sort of indignation. Pontypool is so layered that it can even be boiled down to a cool little morality tale of one man getting the nightmarish version of what he wishes for; much to Mazzy’s dismay, nothing ever happens in the town of Pontypool, but he suddenly finds himself reporting from the front lines of the possible end times.
Pontypool seems like the type of film that will be extremely rewarding with future revisits--it’s intricately layered and complex, and it hits cerebrally as much as viscerally (there are some slick gore gags strewn in). Just looking back at the film’s opening monologue, I’m already picking up on motifs and themes here, as Mazzy’s babbling actually seems to have more of a form when placed in the full context of the film. After he’s engaged in a bit of wordplay and discussed how things “come into focus” and “coincide with a weird way,” he asks “what does it all mean?” Pontypool isn’t concerned with answering that question so much as poking and prodding our need to answer it--we want to bring order to everything, which is precisely why language exists, and Tony Burgess and Bruce McDonald have crafted a film that invites you to engage in the interpretation of seemingly random signification right from the outset. Their seemingly impenetrable wall of noise and dialogue almost dares you to pick at it, and then they spend the next 90 minutes exploring the terror of not being able to understand. IFC released the film onto a DVD that’s worth picking up since it has a strong presentation, particularly in terms of audio, as the 5.1 track swirls around all of your speakers. Extras are also abundant, as there’s a radio play version of the story, a few short films, some trailers for both Pontypool and other IFC films, and an audio commentary with McDonald and Burgess. At one point, Mazzy refers to a Barthes quote at that manages to sum the film up perfectly: “trauma is a news photo without a headline”; Pontypool is the cinematic exploration of this terror of not knowing, and it’s one of the best horror films in recent years. Buy it!
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