It’s impossible to talk about the cinema of Canada without mentioning the National Film Board. Founded in 1939 to support the Canadian war effort through film, the NFB would later shed its propagandist tendencies and become a vital force in Canadian cinema. It enabled the development of vérité cinema in Quebec, gave women a national filmmaking platform in the form of Studio D (1974-96), and provided legendary animators like Norman MacLaren and Ryan Larkin with what amounted to a big government-funded sandbox to play in. The NFB is also a 73-time Oscar nominee, taking home 12 statuettes as of last year. One of those winners, the 1982 anti-nuke short If You Love This Planet, was even classified by the Reagan administration as foreign propaganda. This is all to say that The Devil at Your Heels, not being animated or outwardly political, isn’t a quintessential NFB doc. But it is an endlessly fascinating character study about a man, his rocket-powered car, and his dream to jump a mile across the St. Lawrence River.
Ken Carter is a figure straight out of an Errol Morris film: a middle-class stunt driver from the mean streets of Montreal, earnest to a fault about what he does and why he does it. He fits the archetype of the determined, single-minded eccentric to a T. He jumps buses and chuckwagons for the thrill of it, sure, but also because it’s something he does well. And the people love it, eh! One of the film’s great successes is demonstrating that despite the aw-shucks hoser persona he projects, Carter is indeed savvy and knowledgeable about his particular niche. This makes his dream of jumping the St. Lawrence all the more unfathomable, especially given the amount of variables involved (including, but not limited to, engine thrust, wind speed, and ramp smoothness). But what The Devil at Your Heels is most incisive about is the juggling act required to coordinate such a singular high-risk event. Having this many moving parts requires resources, and acquiring them has the side-effect of diluting the elemental purity, however perverse, of jumping a car over other cars. There’s a sense that while having outside investors helps with visibility, it dulls that raw spark that exists on a smaller scale. It’s the kind of spark present when Carter addresses a small speedway crowd for a stretcher after breaking his ankle during a jump. Contrast that with the frustration and fear that come to a head with his St. Lawrence jump attempts. Has the man behind the wheel of the rocket-mobile, ready to launch his body at break-neck speed off of a ramp and over a river, realized that his dream is a terrible, terrible idea? Or is he simply frustrated that events have conspired to create another delay?
The core question at the heart of any documentary feature is “how much of this is real, and how much does it matter?” This becomes doubly interesting in The Devil at Your Heels, which is more or less stunt reel. How much of Carter’s persona is affected by director Robert Fortier (the NFB vet, not the journeyman character actor favoured by Robert Altman) and his crew is up for debate, as is the level to which the financiers actually affect the big jump. While motivations and personalities are indeed affected by the observer’s paradox, practical stunts, especially larger-scale ones like the one being attempted, generally are not. Whether driven or goaded, whether playing to the camera or not, Ken Carter still does unimaginable things with an automobile, and steps are taken to get to that end. Whether real or staged, the framework has to exist; they still had to build that eyesore of a ramp, for example. So ultimately, the film isn’t so much interested in why Carter does what he does, but in the set-up and execution of the act itself. In that spirit, Fortier planted cameras anywhere they would fit in an attempt to convey such anti-cinematic concepts as gravity and torque: hoods, ramps, dashboards, doors. Footage gets slowed down and replayed not so a moment can be underscored or pored over, but so we can register it as a thing that’s actually happening. This culminates in one of the most jaw-dropping and horrifying sequences I’ve seen in a motion picture, documentary or otherwise. It does involve a car and a ramp, and every second of it is real.
The film ends on a bittersweet note, with a wistful shot of Carter sitting in front of the massive ramp, but a quick Google search gives the film dark edge it didn’t have upon initial release. Carter passed away in Peterborough, Ontario in 1983, two years after The Devil at Your Heels was released. His rocket-powered car overshot its target and he died instantly in the ensuing accident. It was the kind of accident that could have happened during any of his prior runs. But that fateful jump seemed better suited to Ken Carter. There wasn’t a network TV crew or foreign investors involved; there was a car, a ramp, an obstacle, and a crowd. The Devil at Your Heels is as worthy an epithet as any, a compelling vérité look at the politics, minutiae, and skull-crushing grandeur of stunt driving. So may the Mad Canadian rest in peace, knowing that he died the way he lived: hauling ass in a rocket car.
The Devil at Your Heels is free to watch on the National Film Board’s web site, along with damn near every other thing the NFB has produced.
Directed by Robert Fortier; starring Ken Carter; 102 minutes.