On the Road with Sasquatch

Two furry animals in the woods Description automatically generated

Sasquatch Sunset (Bleecker Street)

In the summer of 1983 Ted Kaczynski was feeling hemmed in even in remote Lincoln, Montana. “There were too many people around my cabin,” he later wrote, “So I decided I needed some peace.”

In search of the solace that only nature could provide him, he hiked up to a favorite remote spot far from the cars, trucks, RVs, chainsaws, and Americans that plagued him. “I went back to the plateau, and when I got there I found they had put a road right through the middle of it,” Kaczynski recounted. “You just can’t imagine how upset I was.”

Kacyznski’s rage was real. It was already explosive. He’d begun sending bombs through the mail five years earlier.

Although there were no witnesses to the Unabomber’s encounter with the newly built road, we can assume it wasn’t as visceral as the reaction to the same scenario by a trio of Big Foots—a companionable, low-IQ male (Jesse Eisenberg); a sensitive and resolute, female (Riley Keough); and an imaginative, even astute adolescent (Christophe Zajac-Denek)—in the latest film from brothers David and Nathan Zellner, Sasquatch Sunset. These hirsute hominids—the Sasquatches not the Zellners, though Nathan in full prosthetics plays the Harvey Weinstein alpha male who dominates, or tries to dominate, the opening stretch of the movie—emerge from the shadows of the redwoods and onto a dirt road packed hard and terrifyingly bright against the sunshine penetrating the cleft in the canopy.

The creatures have apparently never come across anything like this straight, flat, hard, horrible thing and they don’t have the mental faculties to deal with it. What literally strikes them first is the texture of the transformed earth under their outsized feet, its awful strangeness confirmed when they bend down to touch the surface with their hairy, knobbly fingers. The smell is alien too, the lingering residue of rubber and diesel, the whiff of that strangest, most lethal of threats: human beings.

After exploring the road tactilely, the current top male (emotionally more sensitive, Jesse Eisenberg’s character is hardly more acute than Nathan Zellner’s) looks up and sees that the roads runs straight through the woods to a vanishing point. This is even more terrifying than the touch of it. They see the doom of infinity. Turning around they learn that the road also extends unfathomably in the opposite direction and this drives them into a renewed freak-out. Each new blow of perception makes them forget the previous one. They turn back to the original direction and are horrified yet again that the road is still there.

After they’ve taken in the stimuli of sight and touch, the terrible truth sinks deeper into their bodies. All three begin explosively shitting and pissing and vomiting on top of the road. This is not an act of marking the violation with their scents, but an irrepressible, reflexive response to the incommensurability of this danger.

In his Et in arcadio ego, W. H. Auden also tries to get his mind around a road:

I well might think myself
A humanist,
Could I manage not to see

How the autobahn
Thwarts the landscape
In godless Roman arrogance

These apes aren’t quite human and certainly aren’t humanists, and unlike Kaczynski they didn’t go to Harvard at age sixteen. But in the bones of their big feet they know what they’re up against. Luckily, perhaps, their memories, individual and collective, are not long. They will tramp on.

Many reviewers seem to consider the extravagant excretions in this road scene a slapstick extravaganza. That’s part of the paradoxical pleasure of the cinema: the enjoyment of watching others, even if they are imaginary or mythic, suffering or literally scared shitless. But these Sasquatch antics are far more unsettling, and profoundly comic, when viewed as a mash-up of the eschatological and the scatological. Try to hold it in when you watch the live-feed of the Thwaites Glacier launching itself into the Amundsen Sea!

One shouldn’t be surprised that the urbanites of the New York Times and others clearcut the backcountry pathos and terror even while these hipster humanists rightly understand the movie as an allegory of extinction for a species (theirs) supposedly more advanced in evolutionary terms. Yet humans, whether clean-shaven or artfully beardsmithed, now appear doomed by the very same forces they have unleashed that will snuff out Sasquatch, or already have. The Sasquatch cohort never sees man or woman but discovers the results of their arts, sciences, and industry: that road; a tree marked for felling with a scarlet X; a bear trap with a denuded bone still in its iron jaws; a docile hen in a chicken-wire cage; rusted logging equipment.

When the Sasquatches come across a campsite in their woods the people who have apparently just set up are inexplicably nowhere to be seen or heard. The tent is shocking red and stocked with even more toxically colored junk food, that the hairy bi-peds tear into. There is also a bright yellow tape deck that, after some fiddling breaks into 1990s Brit synth-pop as garish as the snacks they’ve plundered. Presumably, they don’t know the band’s name, Erasure, which strikes those cineastes in the know as archly oracular, as does the song’s title and refrain “Love to Hate You.” The apogee of human art encountered by these supposedly inferior apes is thumping techno-pap. It drives the Sasquatch not to dance but to destruction.

The filmmaking brothers forage relentlessly through an undergrowth of cinematic allusion: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Sometimes a Great Notion, Deliverance, nature documentaries and the Bigfoot movies that came to our local theater on Bainbridge Island in the Pacific Northwest. But these winking gags and the physical comedy enacted by the human actors in their hairy, fleshy suits are shot through with terrifying melancholy. If we laugh at the Sasquatchian behaviors we are also laughing at ourselves, and it is a bitter Swiftian laugh. It isn’t only Donald Trump’s pussy-grabbing that the rampant libido of Zellner’s horny Sasquatch male sends up. The entire human species is enslaved by lust, not just for sex but for the domination of nature.

The Sasquatch have a language of monosyllabic grunts, groans and shrieks. Eisenberg’s beta-male tries, unsuccessfully, to count the stars. He can’t manage to tally the rings of a tree either, one which we humans, unlike the Sasquatches, know has been felled by a chainsaw.

But intellectual and imaginative advance is coming to the species, even if this evolutionary progress comes too late—or maybe too early. The adolescent Sasquatch has intuition and an imaginary companion that he ventriloquizes with his hand and that speaks in a more complex language than that of his elders. This youngster is inventing art, writing his own script as he makes his way in his vanishing world.

But the ancestral traditions are his too. He takes up baseball bat-sized branches to pound in precise unison with the others on resonant trees like giant drums or organ pipes, vainly trying to summon others of their vanishing kind from their disappearing habitat.

Even in their own primitive language, the Sasquatches are hardly a voluble bunch.

As these nomads make their way through woods and across fields, vast tracts of cinematic space open up for the musical soundtrack, brilliantly filled in by the experimental band The Octopus Project (Josh Lambert, Toto Miranda, Yvonne Lambert): an electronic scrim from the Wagnerian New Age summons the dawn; a simulated bird-call is awakened by warming sonic rays; pulsing, long-held harmonies provide a soft bed for a sylvan flute melody as the beasts prepare their shelter for the night; serene strings and winds in pastoral mode paint the obligatory, titular views of sunset over vast forests broken only by a few snowy patches; bucolic melodies pair with placid chords for the Disneyesque, wildlife-documentary cameos of wolverine or possum or snake. There is humor in many of these musical cues, clichés as artificial as those unseen campers’ Cheetos. The echoing thwack of a bongo signals the discovery of berries, the hollow ring of a tubular chime awakens an almost sacred pleasure at eating them. A tender lullaby welcomes a new life. Tantric, wellness-spa sonorities as the beasts prepare for love.

The idyll will be broken and when it is, melodies struggle against pounding electronics. The thumps of drums and shimmer of cymbals sew dread. Industrial eruptions agitate the Sasquatch’s terror. Dissonant collisions, metallic scrapings, wiry janglings terrorize the road scene.

And in the end, the inevitable closing song serenades the credits with the first words of English, said or sung, in the entire movie. The invisible singer is Riley Keough, a granddaughter of Elvis Presley. She also played the female sasquatch, whose sad eyes seem prescient of her clan’s fate. This makes for the most knowing joke of the whole movie, Rock and Roll royalty breathily hymning the “Creatures of Nature.” David Zellner’s goofily grandiloquent doggerel lyric is delivered by Keough above harmonically inert, harplike guitar chords, cello drones, and other precious folkisms:

Stewards of forests and
Rivers and mountains
All co-habitating
In Grand Guignol

To go against Nature
Is to face its fury
From ancient Pompeii
To Hurricane Paul

The vintage machinery, the nylon tents, the boombox and the synthesized hit on its cassette: all of these and other clues suggest that the movie is set in an already vintage past, even if these signs could ambiguously gesture towards possibly retro glampers, as do the tourist-attraction logging museum adorned by bigfoot statues and other practices of the present. The Sasquatches might still have some more time or they may have already disappeared over the horizon of history.

The closing song is coyly oracular on this matter of time and truth. Rummaging in the undergrowth for a final morsel of cliché, the last rhyme of “Creatures of Nature” nods to Shakespeare on the way towards the exit:

Chaos is order
The order of Nature
Through Winter and Spring and
Through Summer and Fall

They camе here beforе us
And shall be long after
’Til the World finally reaches
Its last curtain call.

This 90-minute, end-of-an-eon drama concludes as soft-focus choral vocalizations (“la, la, la, la”—a soft syllable decidedly not the bigfoot vocabulary) bathe Sasquatch Sunset in golden, elegiac light. The perspective broadens, time expands towards irrelevance. The road has disappeared from view and memory, reclaimed by the forest or what comes after it.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com