The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot: “21st-century tall tales”
Normally when a film’s auteur identity is ascribed to a producer it’s because said producer is a major Hollywood player. We know what a Jerry Bruckheimer film looks like, as surely as previous generations knew what a David O Selznick film looks like. In the independent realm, the director is supposed to be the lens we view these matters through, but audiences reading the closing credits for Robert D Krzykowski’s debut feature The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot – released on DVD and Blu-Ray by Spirit Entertainment – may be forgiven a sudden moment of clarity.
Not to take credit from Krzykowski, whose unusual film surely represents some personal vision that will become easier to identify as his career continues. But there is something so perfect about the two most prominent producer’s credits being John Sayles and Lucky McKee. Sayles, the director of Matewan and Lone Star, America’s most committed social realist, meets the genre-savvy horror provocateur who made The Woman and May. Together, they’re like the angel and devil on the shoulder of Krzykowski’s film, one pulling him towards political deconstructions of American national mythology, the other pulling him towards grindhouse shocks and genre narrative.
This is, perhaps, too much for a film to live up to. It’s definitely too much for The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot to live up to. Some of the most deeply felt scenes simply involve two-time monster-killer Calvin Barr going about his retired life; caring for his dog, drinking at his local bar, hanging out with his brother. It’s far closer to John Carroll Lynch’s touching Harry Dean Stanton tribute Lucky than anyone would expect from a movie called The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot. (Sure enough, Ron Livingston has a supporting role in both) It helps that Krzykowski has a leading man of comparable stature to Stanton: recent first-time (!) Oscar nominee Sam Elliott.
Krzykowski understands perfectly what Elliott brings to the screen – old-school toughness, yes, but also a little twinkle in the eye, a subtle signal that he’s in on the joke. Barring a few broader gags (including a great one involving a Nazi wristwatch), most of the humour is on an almost unreadably deadpan level. Joe Kraemer’s soundtrack, for example, is the kind of brooding, old-fashioned score you might hear in a real Hollywood war movie made in the 1970s. If it’s meant to be parodic, though, it has to be noted that it fits very well with the moments in the film that are clearly sincere.
The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot is certainly meant to be a bait-and-switch, one which fits neatly into a modern trend for soulful readings of pulp adventure and horror stories like Let the Right One In, Raw and basically everything Guillermo del Toro’s ever done. It doesn’t hit those heights, partly because this kind of shaggy-dog story needs a deep bench of memorable supporting characters to make the audience enjoy the road to nowhere. As with David Robert Mitchell’s recent Coens/Pynchon mash-up Under the Silver Lake, Krzykowski can’t yet provide that. He also positions a wartime romance as the skeleton key to Barr’s personality, but what we see on screen – involving Aidan Turner as the young Barr – just isn’t powerful enough to work as a narrative backbone. Having a hero working as a deep-cover agent in Nazi Germany seems to offer lots of opportunities for a doomed, tragic romance, none of which are really exploited here. There is also a brief scene involving concentration camp prisoners, which isn’t as tasteless as it could have been but still feels out of place in a film which mostly uses the Nazis as a punchline.
Best, perhaps, to approach The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot as a 21st-century equivalent to Johnny Appleseed or John Henry, a tall tale for an America whose mythology is defined by war and mass media rather than the frontier and the campfire. Fans of Elliott will certainly leave happy, as will fans of Sasquatch – Krzykowski has a few new twists to the creature’s mythology, as well as practical effects from the legendary Douglas Trumbull.