Joel Potrykus’s Ape seems proud to present itself as a “guerrilla film,” an alluring phrase that calls to mind a hardcore/punk-rock ethos, and implies a sense of urgency involved with the subject matter. As the film unfolds, however, one finds that those qualities are called to mind, but never actually presented. Evocations for their own sake, sprinkled into a story so flimsy that minor stylistic choices can(and do) overpower it.
We follow Trevor Newandyke (Joshua Burge), an aspiring stand-up comedian who tunes out his problems with loud music and has a secret case of pyromania. Take a moment to envision the different directions and sources of drama to which that set-up may lead. Maybe Trevor’s on the verge of some sort of big break, and his affliction is causing problems for him. Maybe the fire obsession finally gets out of hand and Trevor is threatened by a blaze he can’t contain. Maybe Trevor lights himself on fire and tells jokes about it. Who knows? Alright, now that we’ve appreciated the premise, here’s what actually happens in the movie: Trevor is an aspiring stand-up comedian who has a secret case of pyromania. He meets a man dressed as The Devil and buys an apple from him, which he then eats. Trevor continues to be an aspiring comedian with a secret case of pyromania, but now sticks up for himself in a variety of violent ways. In the end, a tree grows out of his side and he presumably “dies.” No one action seems to carry much of any consequence or connection to the next, and many events just seem to occur and then disappear. Trevor smashes an audience member’s head with a mic-stand, then he brushes his teeth and spits some blood. Trevor kills (!?) a man assaulting his neighbor, then he goes about his day. What matters to this film? Is this the director smashing our heads with a mic-stand?
It would be another conversation, too, if the execution was there, but it’s just not. A scene that one must guess the filmmakers viewed pivotal, because it begins the film and is repeated later in its entirety, involves Trevor spraying the word “FUNNY” in flammable liquid on the ground and then hurling a Molotov cocktail. He throws the bottle, and it just sort of arcs into a roll as the rag falls out and it leaves two very tiny, pathetic flames. Was there only one take? Perhaps it was meant to be intentionally anti-climactic, but why then did they add in the sound of a bottle breaking? Why doesn’t he light the word he wrote on fire? My instinct is to think, “well, they didn’t want to do anything too dangerous,” but at the end of the day, if you’re going to make a guerrilla film about a pyromaniac, you have to be a little ballsier with the fire.
There’re plenty more aspects of Ape that underwhelm (take a shot every time conflict is expressed by Trevor saying “What? C’mon man!”), but its biggest problem is just a lack of content. One can see the kernel of a fun, engaging idea, but it’s stretched to its absolute limits by the movies two-hour run time. A former stand-up’s bizarre rage fantasy molded into a movie isn’t inherently a bad idea, it just needs much more meat on its bones, and probably should’ve just been a short film. All the punk rock in the world can’t tune that out.