When you hear a title like The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot, you’re likely to imagine some kind of grindhouse-esque action thriller filled with gun fights, explosions, and absurd badassery, something, perhaps, akin to Iron Sky, a film which plants its tongue firmly into its cheek and goes to town on history. This is an expectation writer/director Robert D. Krzykowski seems firmly aware of and leans into, even as the story itself subverts expectations by being much more of a contemplative adventure, a meditation on violence, nature, and growing old. With an eye for detail, Krzykowski is purposeful in everything he places before you and it is all loaded with meaning, creating a riveting experience wherein lead Sam Elliott (A Star Is Born/Tombstone) delivers a career-best performance.
Retired veteran Calvin Barr (Elliott) lives a quiet, simple life in his childhood hometown. He walks his dog, gets his haircut from his brother and local barber, Ed (Larry Miller), and hangs out at a local watering hole. To the outside world, Barr is a terse, but affable man. Internally, Barr remains at war with a past he cannot come to terms with. Each day chisels off more and more of his patience with this life, making each new sunrise a mixed blessing. Barr is, however, a fighter through-and-through, so when he’s called upon by the FBI to handle a national emergency, he must contend with the man he is versus the man he wants to be in order to save humanity by killing a plague-carrying bigfoot wandering the mountains of Canada.
There’s a level of detail present within The Man Who which will take audiences by surprise, mostly because of Krzykowski’s structure and subversion of expectations. In the opening sequence, before even a single image is shown, Billy Squier’s Lonely is the Night blares through the speakers, immediately suggesting that the tale before us is going to be some kind of Rock God adventure. But comparing the lyrics of the song with what we see, Barr sitting alone in a bar, starring at himself in a mirror, suddenly things feel different. They feel deeper, darker, and more calculated, especially as the rhythm of the music is utilized to transition the audience from a close-up image of Barr to a building in World War II under attack from bombers with the rhythmic guitar and drum beats replaced by screaming engines flying overhead and bombs exploding in the distance. Details like these exist throughout the film, enabling the story to weaving together an uncompromising story of a man haunted by his past, surrounded by reminders everywhere. All through The Man Who, Krzykowski offers up an image, a song (like the use of Squier’s Lonely or Bill Wither’s Use Me), or a scene in which the audience will likely assume the meaning one way only for him to twist it another. These are songs which listeners typical attribute to happy, positive emotions, yet Krzkowski’s placement against moments of terrible doubt and insecurity ascribe these scenes with a quiet ache, a perpetual melancholy.
Though The Man Who does offer a rather entrancing and exciting opening in Barr’s first memory, this only serves to set the stage for what’s to come. As the story progresses, we see the mundanity of his life, one he enjoys, even as its ceaselessness seems to drain him. Nothing the audience sees is without purpose, so Krzykowski ensuring we observe Barr in his quiet moments shifts gears from the action-packed expectations down to something more personal, intimate, and contemplative. This serves not just to have the audience act as witnesses to how Barr examines his own life through his memories, but asks us to do the same, to question our own expectations of heroes and how we idolize them by making their actions mythic, when, in truth, our heroes are just people struggling to get by. This aspect is paramount to getting the most out of The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot: heroism comes at a cost which might be too high to pay. Shunting off any kind of specific examination of who Barr is outside of his memories makes this question particularly fascinating to consider. For one, we tend not to think of the man, but the deeds. This kind of shift in cognition places emphasis on what we miss as a result of this thinking. For two, it means that not only does the audience jump back and forth through time, but they do so as memory does, rarely without warning or in order. As such, The Man Who flows in and out of time all the way until there are no more memories to explore. Rather than detracting from the natural flow of the narrative, it enhances every scene, imbuing new meaning into what we observe by seeing it through Barr’s perspective.
Without question, The Man Who is a career highlight for Elliott. He’s done some incredible work in the past and is currently Oscar nominated for his supporting role in the latest adaptation of A Star Is Born, a role, it’s important to note, which garnered him very little screen time, yet made an incredible impression in every moment he appeared. That same weight, same gravitas, same emotionality is applied and increased throughout The Man Who to craft a portrait of a man at the end of the line, unwilling to give up but ready to go. In a particularly poignant moment, Barr sits across from Ron Livingston’s (Office Space) FBI agent simply referred to as “Flap Pin” as the truth of the danger in Canada and the mission that’s required of Barr is laid out. In this sequence, while there’s a great deal of dialogue shared between the two men, what audiences will notice is the emotional reactions each character displays to the other only via their eyes. Flag Pin’s reflecting the awe of a man meeting his hero, Barr’s emoting the pain his past continues to cause. Scenes like these are not few within The Man Who, each packed with an unexpected wallop of emotion. Elliott, it’s worth noting, isn’t the only person playing Barr. Saddled with depicting the man he remembers himself to be is Aiden Turner (The Hobbit trilogy. This is a much more difficult task as Turner tackles two characters in one film, idealistic Barr and post-War Barr, all while matching Elliott’s vocal and physical cadence. In combination, these two men offer performances which give the audience a full picture of who Barr is, what he values, and how he sees himself. The past is the only place the audience obtains any concrete answers about Barr as the present seems only filled with pain.
Two significant supporting roles require mentioning: Miller as younger brother Ed and Caitlin FitzGerald as Maxine, the girl whom Barr loves. Miller’s given less screen time than FitzGerald, but his presence is just as significant. The role of Maxine gives the audience a chance to see what Barr is fighting for, while Ed represents something simpler. If we are truly judged by who we are and not our deeds, what better way to convey this than through the eyes of a younger sibling? Miller’s performance instills within Ed an innocence to The Man Who which Barr himself cannot. Likewise, FitzGerald’s performance infuses her scenes as Maxine with an indelible hope. As mentioned, Turner’s performance must line up with Elliott’s, so FitzGerald must present her character as someone who could stand tall with all versions of Barr. Not a simple task, but one FitzGerald appears to do with ease.
It’s barely the beginning of 2019 and the films hitting theaters are capable of making incredible impressions thanks to sensational feature film debuts from directors like Mitzi Peirone (Braid) and Robert D. Krzykowsi. Each writer/director possesses within them a singular vision and maintains that uniqueness from start to finish, crafting a cinematic experience which stays steadfast within you. For The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot, Krzykowski offers one thing with his title, but gives us something grander in its simplicity. He gives us a tale of a man facing his morality, unflinching as he stares into the abyss, daring it to come to him even as he so desperately wants to give up; a tale which makes us question how we view heroism and what those deeds truly cost; a tale which makes us feel and think far more than may be comfortable, yet through its captivating presentation we cannot look away. And we shouldn’t.
For more information, head to Epic Pictures’s The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot website.
In theaters, on VOD, and digital February 8th, 2019.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.