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Film Review: Pontypool

24 January, 2010

Pontypool (2008)/(2009)

Cinema is an audio-visual experience, and has been that ever since someone came up with the idea of accompanying motion pictures with music. One of the things that modern English-language cinema tends to forget about the beauty of its medium is how the audio part of that audio-visual experience can enhance the quality of a film just as much as the visual part can. In a time of lush landscapes, intricate art design and innovative cinematography, filmmakers too often ignore the effectiveness of a good soundtrack mixed and employed well, witty dialogue dispensed with proper pacing, and the clever combination of those two things.

Canadian director Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool, written by Tony Burgess based on his own novel, is an excellent example of how this can be done very well. The story of the film follows morning radio talk show host Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) as he begins his stint in a local radio station in the small Canadian town of Pontypool. As the day progresses in the radio station, Mazzy and his two colleagues begin to receive more and more information about strange and inexplicable happenings that are occurring in the world outside. With more and more information eeking out, they discover that people are becoming infected, but they don’t know with what or why or even how. It is a zombie/infection film of sorts, but it is so unconventional in parts that it is difficult to categorize this film. It’s a horror film by definition, but it plays out more like a psychological thriller with some darkly comedic elements. All the action of the film is set inside the radio station; creating a claustrophobic atmosphere to the film that is used brilliantly to interplay with the frustrations of the characters.

It is telling that the film was created from a script that was simultaneously made into a radio play – that is not to say that McDonald fails to exploit the visual aspect of the medium as well, however. Making a film about radio broadcasters broadcasting over the radio may seem like an odd decision, but McDonald uses the setting of the film to highlight its themes and its progression. Every scene where Mazzy broadcasts on his own is filmed slightly differently; some with very small variations and others with entirely different approaches altogether. At one point, we cut to a shot of Mazzy slowly and quietly scratching his beard as he speaks. This is something which we’ve seen him done before, but never really thought about. After that shot, we start paying more attention to his facial ticks and body language, both of which give us specific insights into Mazzy’s character – a testament to the brilliance of both the way in which the film was shot and McHattie’s performance.

Pontypool explores why we talk so much, and what it all means. Our words are more than a collection of sounds only because we make them that, and Pontypool questions whether we’ve taken the tool we created for communication to pointless extremes. What makes something really worth saying? Is that even a question worth asking? And in the end, doesn’t a lot of it boil down to nonsense? Written and executed with a wit that matches the likes of In Bruges, this film takes the aural experience to the next level. Regardless of how you interpret it, Pontypool is definitely a must-see film.


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