The history of literature and film is rife with characters whose behaviours are so frustrating, their manias so damn irritating they compel the reader or viewer into enduring, to the point of weird, rapt absorption, stuff he or she would never entertain in real life. Think Ignatius in A Confederacy of Dunces, David Thewlis in Naked, Sartre’s Roquentin in Nausea, the unnamed irrationalist in Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, any character in any novel by Thomas Bernhard.
Now there’s a new, irksome anti-hero for our, um … delectation, a Canadian named Derek. You’ll find him in Tower, the first feature from Torontonian Kazik Radwanski, heretofore best known as a director of short films. A member of that vast army of under-employed, unmotivated man-children, Derek “has failed to launch,” in the parlance of our times, yet doesn’t seem too terribly bothered by that fact. Thirty-four, he continues to live, in comfortable, stubborn numbness, in the basement of his parents’ Toronto house. There, when he’s not half-heartedly doing construction jobs for his uncle, he putters away on his computer, animating a story about a little green creature who builds a world of rock towers that end up taking over the creature’s life. With work proceeding slowly – one month into the project, he’s completed only 14 seconds of animation – Derek (Derek Bogart) has plenty of time for aimless wandering, parrying the feeble exhortations of his parents, hanging at coffee shops, filling in crossword puzzles, observing hair loss and occasionally taking his solitary self to a club for a night of hard boozing and womanizing.
After one such binge, he wakes up on the floor his parents’ living room sporting a cut in the space between his eyebrows, near where the mystical “third eye of enlightenment” would be located. For the remainder of Tower’s 78 minutes, the cut refuses to heal, like some mark of Cain.
Yet for all that, nothing much happens to Derek and when it does, well … it’s nothing much. Crossing paths with an older, single woman, Nicole (Nicole Fairbairn), who claims her last relationship was “about a year ago,” the sex is perfunctory and the sparks do not fly, let alone ignite. Indeed, the most animated Derek gets in the “relationship” is the evening he informs Nicole that “the best thing to do is to break up,” claiming that he has recently reconnected with an old flame. It’s a lie, of course: The biggest commitment Derek evinces in Tower, in fact, is to trap a raccoon that’s been ransacking the recycling and chewing up the garbage.
Of course, if Tower were a mainstream American movie, Radwanski would create a circumstance where Derek could redeem himself. That or explode in some bloody, cathartic rage as Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman did so memorably in, respectively, Taxi Driver and Straw Dogs. Certainly, Derek, played to affectless, feckless, cringe-inducing perfection by Bogart, seems to have a lot going on behind that recessed hairline – but finally he’s too mired in his entropy, alienation and (yes) reflexive Canadian politeness to act with any purpose, violent or otherwise.
This is echoed by the film’s major stylistic conceit, namely Radwanski’s decision to shoot Bogart – and pretty much everyone else in Tower for that matter – in shallow-focus close-up, with only a modicum of medium shots and nothing of the longer variety. Irritating? Oh, yeah – yet entirely apt for conveying both the isolation and off-putting self-involvement of his protagonist while turning Radwanski into this relentless cinematic anthropologist, this almost cruel scrutineer of human character.
While hardly an enjoyable Saturday night at the movies, Tower is compulsively watchable nonetheless. And if memorability is one of art’s hallmarks, it has more of that than many films with 50 times its budget.