Expectations are an utter burden on most art, and when you’ve saddled a melancholy and beautiful film with the attention-grabbing title The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot like writer/director Robert D. Krzykowski has, you’re bound to disappoint some people.
An audience expecting to hoot and holler at the prospect of Sam Elliott killing two of the 20th century’s greatest monsters might be stunned to find themselves crying when the credits roll on Krzykowski’s film, which, perhaps, was not the outcome they were expecting. The Man Who Killed Hitler is more of a genuinely moving meditation on aging and regret than anything you’d find in a typically “traditional” film like The Hero, which also used Elliott well, though it saddled him with contrivance — a romance with a younger woman, daughter issues, a cancer scare — and the brilliance of this particular work is how it uses its genre trappings to strip away so much of the bullshit that throttles films about older actors.
Elliott plays Calvin Barr, an aging grump who haunts the bars in his hometown, having returned to it some 40 years earlier at the end of World War II. He’s spent his life nursing secrets, as his service was so heavily classified and devastating that he couldn’t even tell his own brother Ed (Larry Miller) about it, and painful regrets, and the combination of those factors have led him to a deep depression in the autumn of his years. He is an archetypal Good Man Consumed By Hurt, but he’s shaded well enough by the writing and by Elliott’s work here that he feels realer-than-real, and it helps that he’s given a precious dog named Ralph so that we know he’s not all bitter. We spend a good amount of the time of the film in flashback, where young Calvin (played by The Hobbit‘s Aidan Turner) meets and falls in love with a schoolteacher stateside and infiltrates the High Command in Nazi-terrorized Europe. Turner’s unrecognizable here, and he does a swell job picking and choosing from Elliott’s tics, downplaying them enough so that they feel connective and never once like caricature.
Of course, as you’ve probably gleaned from the title, Calvin killed Hitler on a fateful day long before the end of the war, and he’s regarded as a legend amongst many in-the-know servicemen though he lives in anonymity in his small town. The son of one of those men, now a full-grown adult working for the CIA (Ron Livingston) seeks him out for a mission than only Calvin can complete: He needs to infiltrate some 50-square miles of Canadian wilderness and track and kill the Bigfoot before the cryptid can reach civilization. You see, Bigfoot’s been a harmless creature up until this point, but he’s infected with some sort of Sasquatch-ian flu that will annihilate the human race if it ever gets to a population center. After some internal debate, Calvin decides to help the Government(s), and begins to track the Bigfoot down, towards a climactic showdown that’s more heartbreaking than kick-ass or cathartic. The Bigfoot is an emaciated man-ape creature ravaged by illness, and there’s a sadness not unlike that within something like Princess Mononoke or Shadow of the Colossus to their battle. Something special is disappearing from the world, and Krzykowski knows this and plays it up.
The key thing to understand about The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot is that the film is at its absolute worst when its attempting to live up to its title. You can tell that Krzykowski seems to know this, as he constantly has his characters interrogating the very premise of the film itself throughout — there’s an incredible monologue delivered by Elliott about the nature of “killing Hitler” fantasies and their symbolic uselessness, as Calvin has come to understand that he just “killed a man, not his ideology” — but it never manages to slide into outright despair or nihilism. Even when the movie goes full-genre, it still isn’t bad, but there are gross-out and lurid moments that feel ripped from another film entirely, one that is more tonally in line with that aspect of its sensibility. But Krzykowski’s grand ambitions are, for the most part, impeccably realized within the confines of his meager budget, and there are moments strewn throughout this film that caused me to choke up. I mean, of all things, there’s a match cut between the straightening of two pairs of silverware in two different time periods that is well thought-out and deeply upsetting, which is an odd thing to consider.
Anyways, of all the films I wanted to see at Fantasia this year, this is probably the one that is least like what I expected it to be, but God, I am so glad to have been wrong. This emotional journey — as one man basically learns to move on through the soul-cleansing power of saving the world — is one well worth taking. Krzykowski is a talent to watch, and I’m really interested to see what he’ll do next: If The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot is any indication, he’ll go on to do some great things.
No word on when The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot will hit theaters or VOD, but stay tuned for that information in the coming weeks.