Off the Grid: Denis Côté’s Wilcox

By Jordan Cronk

Wilcox screens with Philip Hoffman’s vulture at TIFF Bell Lightbox on Thursday, January 16 as part of MDFF Selects: Presented by Cinema Scope and TIFF.

Cinema has long been drawn to the outsider, to the drifters and outcasts that society has relegated to the margins—and, with a few notable exceptions (Agnès Varda’s Vagabond [1985] comes to mind), the tendency has been to romanticize these fugitive figures and their quasi-bohemian lifestyles. Denis Côté’s Wilcox is a rejoinder to such depictions. Centred on the day-to-day experiences of its thirtysomething title character (Guillaume Tremblay), an ex-army private living itinerantly in the woods of Montérégie, Québec, the prolific Canadian filmmaker’s latest feature (his second of 2019, following last winter’s small-town ghost story Répertoire des villes disparues) takes on the subject of the solitary, self-sufficient individual not as a means to celebrate a way of life, but rather to articulate the fundamental loneliness of such an existence. Operating once again in a space between narrative and nonfiction, Côté employs bookending title cards to situate his fictional protagonist’s plight within the context of real-life drifters whose lives ended under mysterious or tragic circumstances: amongst others, we learn of a 17-year old boy who took off for the deserts of the American Southwest in 1931 and never returned; a photographer who, while living in the Alaskan wilderness in 1981, slowly lost his grip on reality and committed suicide; and, most famously, 22-year old Christopher McCandless, whose death during a two-year journey from Atlanta to Alaska in the early-’90s became the subject of Jon Krakauer’s bestselling 1996 book Into the Wild and Sean Penn’s subsequent film adaptation in 2007.

Côté, however, seems less interested in the men and women whose deaths have turned them into quasi-cult heroes than he is in the countless others like them whose lives have been relegated to the dustbin of history. As it is for a majority of these individuals, Wilcox’s life is unglamorous, even banal. For much of the film’s 66 minutes, we simply watch as he wanders the landscape. Occasionally, he stops to exercise, steal food from the local market, or inquire about the odd broken-down bus that could provide temporary shelter. At night, he either sets up camp or squats in an abandoned house, before packing up and continuing on the next day. Côté and his editor Matthew Rankin (The Twentieth Century) capture the rhythm of this indeterminate existence in natural light and intricate compositions that delicately refract the countryside’s lush surroundings. In the absence of dialogue, a subtly modulating drone accompanies most scenes (only two sequences utilize direct sound), whose seemingly casual unfolding is much in keeping with the protagonist’s largely tranquil demeanour. What we learn of Wilcox’s life is scant but revealing: his uniform and daily exercise routine hint at his time in the military, while the occasional nightmare (visualized in brief interludes that productively disrupt the film’s otherwise laconic flow) suggests that the experience may have damaged his psyche more than he lets on. (One particularly harrowing instance features archival footage of injured war veterans being fitted for facial prosthetics.)

In a recent interview with Le Devoir, Côté related his approach to a long-standing formalist impulse: “That will always be my fight,” he states. “To attack the building blocks of cinema: image, sound, editing, and narrative.” In Wilcox, Côté reduces narrative to its bare essentials while relying on those “building blocks” to provide and convey the bulk of the emotion—which does eventually build, however gently, as the film approaches its poignant denouement, which suggests that one man’s mundanity is another’s reprieve from a world of endless horrors. Opening up space for thought and reflection on a well-worn subject, Wilcox quietly bears witness to a life that, in a lesser filmmaker’s hands, might have been deemed worthy of interest only if it ended in premature death.

Nature plays a different but equally ominous role in vulture, an unassuming yet sublime featurette by veteran Canadian filmmaker Philip Hoffman. Assembled by the director over a period of two years, the film comprises 16mm footage shot on Hoffman’s farm in Mount Forest, Ontario that the filmmaker then photochemically processed with natural plant and flower pigments, resulting in a roughhewn, multivalent display of richly tinted and textured celluloid. To hear Hoffman tell it, his analog approach to cinema is part and parcel of a universal cycle of survival and sustainability; like a vulture, his film feasts on the very elements of its production, finding aesthetic nutrients in its every ingredient.

Following a brief shot of Homer Watson’s turn-of-the-20th-century landscape painting The Flood Gate, the film commences with a procession of slow, Wavelength-esque zooms towards a variety of animal life (pigs, horses, cows, goats, chickens) before shifting focus to take in the larger ecosystem surrounding the farm fauna: overhead, birds of prey patiently circle, while in the distance, tractors plow the land and farmers work the fields. The film’s landscape imagery occasionally recalls Nicolas Rey’s autrement, la Molussie (2012) or the work of the late Peter Hutton, though the quietly swelling audio frequencies—the sound is credited to Luca Santilli and Clint Enns, with a mix by experimental filmmaker Isiah Medina (88:88)—portend something far less comforting. Like Wilcox, vulture forgoes direct sound; instead, the distant din of fluttering distortion echoes across the stereo field like helicopter blades on the horizon, with the occasional sample of a young boy’s voice emerging from the void as if summoned from another dimension. Before long, those unassuming establishing shots (which appear mostly untouched by any post-production techniques) give way to a series of colour montages that cut together heavily treated images of plant, animal, and human life from around the farm—an idyllic vision disrupted by the subliminal threat of violence and industrialization. Rather than let the threat loom, Hoffman reworks a selection of this same material for a bracing coda in which the previously placid imagery is subjected to a caustic combination of rapid edits and atonal musical flourishes. (Unsurprisingly, both the sound and edit for this section is credited to Medina.) “Vultures live together, and they don’t fight, they help each other,” the boy says at one point—a perfectly succinct bit of childlike wisdom for a world in which pleasure and peril often go hand in hand.

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