My notes on The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot (2018) – which had its European premiere at FrightFest. Out in US cinemas February 8.
Yes, it’s an eye-catching title … and something crucial about the punctilious phrasing (‘… and then the Bigfoot’) hints that this is going to be stranger even than its pulp magazine high concept. Set in 1987, when the film market issues of trade magazines were full of glossy ads for titles that couldn’t possibly (and didn’t) deliver on their promise (Surf Nazis Must Die), it’s a quiet, contemplative piece. Writer/director Robert D. Krzykowski and stars Sam Elliott and Aiden Turner carve out a slice of legend – playing younger and older incarnations of great hunter Calvin Barr, Turner and Elliott get one title coup apiece – but this is no more an action film than Albert Serra’s Story of My Death, which introduces Casanova to Dracula, is a gory romp. The keynote of the film is Barr’s introspection. To him, rather refreshingly, his pre-war courtly romance with schoolteacher Maxine (Caitlin FitzGerald), curtailed by the call of duty, is a more vivid, important memory to him than his secret mission to infiltrate Nazi Germany via the Ukraine and assassinate der fuhrer with a Man With the Golden Gun-type pistol assembled from a pen, a drinking flask and other gadgets. Barr, known to his communist contact (Nikolai Tsankov) as Mr America, admits that the murder was hushed up and history continued on course as we know it, so that this secret glory – tucked in somewhere between Fritz Lang’s Manhunt and Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds – isn’t even something he could brag about if he were the sort of man to blow his own trumpet.
The early stages of the film intercut Barr’s WWII past – including an origin moment where the Turner Barr grows a moustache destined to turn a Sam Elliott shade of gray – with the late ‘80s, as the hero lives quietly in retirement, reconnecting with his barber brother (Larry Miller), battering muggers who dare to stub a cigarette out on his only picture of Maxine while he is co-operating with their car-jacking, and generally projecting an air of American hero self-reliance. When he finds a twenty dollar winning scratchcard dropped in the street, he hands it over to a clerk (Ellar Coltrane of Boyhood) in a convenience store in case the rightful owner comes for it – refusing the offer of a quick payout. Then – ‘and then’ – he’s approached by American and Canadian spooks Flag Pin (Ron Livingston) and Maple Leaf (Rizwan Manji) and recruited for his second assassination of a legend. Hitler, of course, was a conscious mass murderer, but the cryptid (Mark Steger) is targeted because he reputedly carries a plague that could skip the species barrier and cause a pandemic. The still-spry, wary Barr stalks evacuated forests on the track of Bigfoot (probing a pile of scat, he muses ‘vegetarian’), reluctant but dutiful, always reflective (he notes that ‘it doesn’t really have big feet either, not really living up to the name’), and prepared for a last hurrah. Krzykowski stages both Barr’s confrontations with monsters in a matter-of-fact manner – Barr just walks up and finds his quarry – but gives the scenes a great deal of emotional heft, stressing that the hero may carry out his missions but sustains psychic (and physical) wounds even when doing violence to the irredeemably evil (both his big kills involve faking his own death). And the mission isn’t over when he gets back from the woods – he has a mystery rendezvous with his own grave that’s nicely ambiguous and affecting.
This at once isn’t the film its title suggests and is exactly that – Elliott, coming off another role where he plays a version of his screen image (The Hero), is magnificent, of course, as he has been in everything since Frogs and Lifeguard, with a natural dignity and calm that makes him seem like the best of America, an embodiment of the values the country claims but can’t live up to (Barr might be a summation of the roles he plays in The Big Lebowski, Ghost Rider and as the voice of forest firefighting mascot Smokey Bear). If this were a Marvel ‘what if’, the life Calvin Barr lives is what Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers might have gone through if he hadn’t been frozen in WWII – set beside the politicians, the crooks and even regular guys like his brother, he’s the ideal of America … but we see also the loneliness, the pain, the sacrifice, and the doubt that comes along with the position. A lot of heavyweight talent has backed Krzykowski on his feature debut: among the producers are Shaked Berenson (JeruZalem), Gilles Daoust (Starry Eyes), Catherine Dumonceaux (The Death of Stalin), Lucky McKee (May), Patrick Ewald (Big Ass Spider!), John Sayles and Douglas Trumbull. There’s an outstanding, subtle score by Joe Kraemer too.