Film Review: “Sasquatch Sunset” — Creatures of Nature, Walking Proud and Standing Tall

By Tim Jackson

Sasquatch Sunset’s directors claim they were interested in respecting the universal connection between man and nature, albeit with plenty of humor.

Sasquatch Sunset directed by Nathan and David Zellner. Screening at Kendall Square Cinema, Coolidge Corner Theatre, AMC Boston Common, Alamo Drafthouse, and Showcase Cinemas.

A tender moment in Sasquatch Sunset.

Once upon a time, three Sasquatch lived deep in the Redwood Forest. Perhaps they still do; they’ve been around a long time. Around 1940, the name Sasquatch was Anglicized by J.W. Burns from “sásq’ets’, the word used by the First Nations peoples of the British Columbia Coast for whom, along with other native peoples, the myth was real. 66 years later, the Humboldt Times reported that a road construction crew near Bluff Creek in Northern California had discovered what looked to them to be 16-inch-long human-looking footprints. They named the culprit “Bigfoot.” It stuck. Then, in 1967, amateur Bigfoot hunter Roger Patterson filmed the most famous piece of “evidence”: a few seconds of a Bigfoot walking erect near that same area. It wasn’t until 2002 that the prints were revealed to be a prank played by Ray Wallace, who had worked for the construction company. Upon his death at 84, his son claimed the feet had been carved from wood and stamped into the ground from a slow-moving truck. Without his father around to deny that claim, even the debunking has been debunked — numerous times.

The Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization claims sightings from every state. The most recent was in June 2018 when a Florida woman reported seeing a creature that looked like “a large pile of soggy grass.” Just this week, a woman on the neighborhood app Next Door Cambridge posted this sighting: “Several residents of Mt. Auburn claim they spotted a human-like creature about 8 feet tall climbing around a hill in the cemetery. Others found some large footprints around a tomb.” Willing to waste a few minutes, I wrote this response:

I paused for a minute to look at my watch
In the distance, I saw a small splotch
It was hairy and moved
That still didn’t prove
There’s a mythical Cambridge Sasquatch

Along with such fantastical specimens as the Yeti of Tibet, the Boggy Bottom Monster of Atoka County, and the Boo Hag of South Carolina’s Gullah culture, the tall tales roll on. In their film Sasquatch Sunset, directors Nathan and David Zellner (Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter) have decided to explore this crypto-hominid myth. In it, actors Jesse Eisenberg, Riley Keough, Christophe Zajac-Denek, and co-director Nathan Zellner sport furry Sasquatch suits and wear flexible rubber masks designed to allow facial expression and natural eye movement. The film proceeds in four chapters — based on the seasons — with the creatures wandering about the Redwood Forest, playfully illustrating the roots of human intelligence and behavior in all their (often obscene) primal wonder. These creatures are endowed by the same urges that drive humans, albeit without the boundaries of civilized restraint. Call it a near-human comedy.

Each episode has an analog in the civilized world. Several segments poke at the absurdities of male privilege. When the alpha male (Zellner) is aroused by the hairy rear quarters of his female mate (Keough), we see him charge ahead for a mating opportunity — only to be madly chased off. Later, drunk on berries, he attempts to copulate with the knothole of a piece of a tree, thus destroying the group’s lean-to. Driven away by his irritated mates, the morose beast man wanders off alone and discovers a cluster of polka-dotted mushrooms. After he consumes them he becomes high on a wildly inflated sense of power — accompanied by a vivid pink erection (yes, the costume has a penis). Eventually, this male predilection for sex and power will prove to have unfortunate consequences. Keough’s female is more practical and measured. Her pendulous breasts (part of the costume design) do not at that point attract her mate to her front side — a development of primitive life theorized by Desmond Morris in his book The Naked Ape. However, her bosom provides nurturing sustenance to her young: women will carry forth the species.

Some viewers may find some of the depictions of bodily functions distasteful, but not all of the film’s caricatures of human behavior are unpalatable. The clan employs primitive symbols, engages in burial rituals, and even finds ways to communicate with sticks. These creatures don’t live merely to survive; they experience feelings of jealousy and even of grief. Love is a way of bonding for survival. Nature is not merely a means to an end; our protagonists find awe in the wings of a butterfly, in the odor of a skunk, in the grandeur of mountain vistas. They have their limits: learning to count past four is a challenge, particularly when trying to tally up the number of stars in the night sky or rings on a fallen tree. Inevitably, of course, civilization encroaches on this paradise. Trees felled and marked with a large red “X” inspire confusion and dismay. When the Sasquatch discover a paved road they react, either as a protest or to mark their territory, by covering it with a flurry of excretory bodily functions, including breast milk.

Sasquatch Sunset turns out to be more than a joky, chitter-chattering exercise in grossing out viewers. This myth of primitive survival, of Sasquatch slapstick, generates considerable poignancy. The actors studied animal movement with an expert coach who trained under Marcel Marceau. Steve Newburn’s scruffy creature designs are exceptional. The directors claim they were interested in respecting the universal connection between man and nature, albeit with plenty of humor. That amalgamation — earnest environmentalism and cartoon satire — is evident throughout, from the elegiac music that accompanies the opening shot to the final moment, which gives way to a plaintive and innocent song from the experimental band Octopus Project. It is sung by Riley Keough.

The Creatures of Nature
Live nobly among us
The Creatures of Nature
Walk proud and stand tall
Friend of the Redwood
The Elm, Oak and Willow
Through Winter and Spring and
Through Summer and Fall

Tim Jackson was an assistant professor of Digital Film and Video for 20 years. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed three feature documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater; Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups; When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Story. And two short films: Joan Walsh Anglund: Life in Story and Poem and The American Gurner. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.

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