Shot on a single set built in a two-car garage, Relaxer is Joel Potrykus’ wild fourth feature, a fleabag Exterminating Angel where the excesses of bourgeois culture have been replaced by a dogshit apartment and a Nintendo 64. It’s the latest entry in an electric body of work, fluent in a very specific turn-of-the-century lower-middle-class disaffection, a cinema of deep-seated angst and convenience store meals. After three very good full-lengths (Ape, Buzzard, and The Alchemist Cookbook, all of which I highly recommend), Relaxer stands as Potrykus’ masterpiece, a pure hit of his absurdist, amusingly puerile worldview and his unobtrusive formal patience.
Abbie (Potrykus regular Joshua Burge) is on the couch playing Pac-Man. He has been there for… days? Weeks? Who knows. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that he can’t get up. Why? His brother Cam (Ant-Man‘s David Dastmalchian), a bastard and bully of the highest order, goads him into childish “challenges” like eating ten hamburgers in one sitting or listening to Metallica songs at ear-splitting volume on headphones. The label of “quitter” hangs above Abbie’s head like the sword of Damocles. But not this time. He has been challenged by his brother to defeat Pac-Man‘s famous “kill screen,” where half the board is glitched out due to the limitations of the hardware, in a single sitting. Success means Abbie will secure a $100,000 purse offered by legendary video game heel Billy Mitchell (which was a real contest, by the way), but more importantly, he will not have quit. Nothing will stop him this time. Not being unable to get off the couch to eat or piss. Not the impending Y2K apocalypse his prick brother is convinced is going to happen. Not the people coming into the apartment to set off fumigation bombs. Nothing.
Relaxer has few moving parts, so special attention is given to the performances. Each supporting cast member shines in their time on screen. Andre Hyland is great fun as Dallas, the video store douchebag who, among other things, duct tapes jugs of soda to his hands (you know, as a challenge) and name-drops “Thomas Cruise” and “Tom’s Cruise” as he invokes Jerry Maguire in asking Abbie to show him the money (for the soda he taped to his hands). Adina Howard also excels in a brief role as Arin, a former co-worker of Abbie’s who is an oasis of calm in a tempestuous sea of dirtbags. The aforementioned Dastmalchian might be the film’s secret MVP, committing to the mean older brother shtick with an alarming intensity that wouldn’t have been out of place in an ’80s fart comedy. And then there’s Burge, shirtless, sweaty, sticky with Faygo and smeared with shit. He is the patron saint of putting excessive effort into being lazy. His performance is superb, all existential bleariness and protracted fumbling. He’s a dead ringer for Buster Keaton here, but he’s not taking bumps in the same way as his silent-era doppelgänger. What Burge’s character is subjected to is closer to Jackass territory in spirit, and we get to see each bizarre “stunt” in odd, nervy one-shot takes.
Potrykus’ oners are like staring contests. They invite you to participate in the tension of inaction. They draw attention to what little the character is doing rather than to how the director set up the shot. They aren’t show-stopping displays of technical wizardry, but they do betray Potrykus’ prodigious sense of control. They’re a window into the psychic inertia of these characters and the stupid shit they dedicate themselves to, whether that’s tanking a stand-up set by eating an apple in Ape or drinking rancid milk from a baby bottle on a dare in the opening scene here. This is what it is to exist someplace where the entropy of your surroundings isn’t worth fighting against.
Potrykus’ films are odes to the alienated, the fuck-ups and losers who believe in the binding nature of the dare and the inherent hilarity of farts and boners. But there’s an undercurrent of trauma that darkens the proceedings. Abbie and Cam have a tortured relationship with each other and with their parents, all of which comes to a head in the film’s startling, enigmatic finale. But the throughline is aimlessness: Potrykus’ characters often have a misplaced drive, a tendency to laser-focus on the banalities of their existence as a ritual to stave off the darkness. With Relaxer, that focus, both narrative and formal, is distilled to its purest form, and establishes Potrykus as nothing short of an American master.
Relaxer had its international premiere at the 2018 Fantasia Film Festival on July 14th. It screens again on July 16th.
Directed by Joel Potrykus; written by Joel Potrykus; starring Joshua Burge, David Dastmalchian, Andre Hyland, Adina Howard, and Amari Cheatom; 91 minutes.