Sasquatch Sunset is Moving and Grossly Adorable

The Zellner Brothers cast big-time actors as grunting, pooping cryptids — and it works like a charm.

Bleecker Street
Inverse Reviews

You’d be forgiven for imagining the dulcet tones of Sir David Attenborough narrating Sasquatch Sunset. A surreal comedy by David & Nathan Zellner (The Curse), the film often feels like a tender nature documentary, with an unobtrusive, observant camera capturing a quartet of bipedal Sasquatches from afar. However, its conceit is geared towards bridging that spatial and narrative gap. For their bizarre experiment, the Zellners cast recognizable faces like Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network) and Riley Keough (Mad Max: Fury Road), lather them in makeup until they’re almost indistinguishable, and slowly but surely imbue them with human qualities, until the movie becomes a meaningful, raucous tragicomedy unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

The film’s four Sasquatches never speak — they’re humanoid, but not quite human — but the actors all commit themselves to the movie’s grunting gimmick with remarkable flair. Director Nathan Zellner plays the ostensible “alpha” of the bunch, a hulking, brooding, selfish Sasquatch whose prosthetics give him a distinct scowl, and a bit of a Fu Manchu. Keough plays the quartet’s female, a caring creature who isn’t afraid to stand up for herself, while Eisenberg, unsurprisingly, plays a meek and gentle adult male living in Zellner’s shadow. Rounding out this group is a shorter, weaker, more playful Sasquatch, who’s also more golden-brown compared to the others’ graying fur. This one is played by Christophe Zajac-Denek, though whether he's an adolescent or a bent-over elder is a bit of a mystery; he has the appearance of both.

As these creatures are introduced, their actual ages and relationships are hard to pin down, though this doesn’t seem accidental. We are, after all, prone to projecting human structures and tendencies on even vaguely human figures (from the anthropomorphic animals of Aesop’s fables, to C-3PO and R2D2). Maybe the creatures are siblings. Maybe they’re a nuclear family of four. Maybe there’s something incestuous about the Zellner Sasquatch’s advances on Keough, or maybe not.

Once these concerns of social constructs are stripped away, the film becomes hilariously strange in its depiction of animalistic instincts imbued with uncannily human qualities. The male Sasquatches have pulsating erections, and clap their knuckles together to signal their intentions (the female often rebuffs them), yielding simple, broad-strokes sex comedy beyond the confines of language. When they discover new fruits while traversing the North American wilderness — which cinematographer Michael Gioulakis paints with lush warmth — they indulge in gluttonous consumption until the pulp and juices get lodged in their furry beards. Pristine beauty and childish chaos always exist in the same frame, until they cease to be opposites. And when one of the Sasquatches discovers an intoxicating berry, well, you’re likely to be reminded of one of your most ill-advised nights out in college, upchuck and all.

Sasquatch Sunset is like a nature documentary meets gross-out comedy.

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Despite employing observational humor at its most stripped-down, Sasquatch Sunset also has a sad and lonely streak. As the creatures wander from place to place, they occasionally stop to bang sticks on enormous trees in a distinct four-beat pattern, after which they wait until the echo dissipates, just in case someone else in the distance responds. The movie’s setting is left vague for the most part, but in drawing on our cultural understanding of the Sasquatch (or Bigfoot, essentially a modern myth), it implies that this species doesn’t run rampant, and may even be endangered. That the characters move from place to place may be a migratory pattern — whatever the reason, it places them in intriguing new situations with every scene — or it may simply be a search for home and community.

The performances are, quite simply, astounding. They’re reminiscent of the men in ape costumes in the prologue of 2001: A Space Odyssey, with the same sense of hesitance and discovery, but the Zellners use of close-ups tethers us to them spiritually. They may not always emote and behave like Homo sapiens, but once the camera lingers on them for long enough, and the actors build fears and motivations through subtle reactions and darting eyes, they feel distinctly human.

And what’s more human than bodily fluid? Given the situations it presents, from minor jealousies between the characters to scenes of bacchanalian revelry, Sasquatch Sunset could very well be a Hollywood college comedy, only it has fewer social shackles holding it back. It’s a movie filled with urine (meant to mark one’s territory), fecal matter (used as projectile weapons), and the casual sipping of breast milk (out of pure curiosity). The camera’s lack of judgment in these matters is fascinating and freeing, and while your mileage may vary when it comes to visceral disgust, the film’s innocent fascination with all things “gross” makes it consistently unpredictable.

Though its cast is unrecognizable, they feel intensely human.

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This is also enhanced by the way the Zellners and their co-editor Daniel Tarr weave their scenes together. Over a century into moviemaking, the reaction shot has become a fundamental cinematic instinct — its most famous incarnation may be the awestruck “Spielberg face,” which appears before the reveal of what a person is reacting to — but it conforms to the specific rhythms of human understanding, lasting as long as it takes for person to process visual and emotional information. In Sasquatch Sunset, this technique is stretched. The characters discover something surprising, or exciting, or horrifying, but before the movie cuts to it, the camera stays trained firmly on their uninhibited, ape-like responses, as they flail or tilt their heads in curiosity, taking longer than humans would to process what’s before them. The result not only places us more firmly in their shoes, so to speak, but constantly builds anticipation and surprise, in a film that feels adventurous despite having no destination in mind (thanks in no small part to a magical, uplifting score by The Octopus Project).

Most surprising of all, perhaps, is the precision with which the Zellners and their ensemble keep the film’s emotions simmering just beneath its ridiculous surface. What ought to feel like tonal swings, when the movie oscillates between farcical and straight-faced (something even downright tragic), end up playing like natural progressions of this peculiar family’s journeys across the landscape. The film clocks in at under 90 minutes long, but given the extremes it manages to hit — from riotous joy, to solemn despair; from primal recognition, to dreamlike reflections on community — it feels like an entire, ludicrous lifetime lived.

Sasquatch Sunset opens in limited release April 12. It expands to wide release on April 19.

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