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Pontypool (2008)

by on 2012/10/23

‘Ne traduire pas cet annonce.’

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Having come from a background of audio production, traditional radio holds a certain fascination for me. Oddly, I’ve rarely listened religiously. It may be I’ve always felt a bit left out or disconnected.

Somehow it never occurred to me until I took in Pontypool that perhaps it’s the people running the show who are actually disconnected. It was among the earliest thoughts of many provoked by this adaptation of the book by author Tony Burgess and director Bruce McDonald.

Set in Pontypool, Ontario, Canada (a town between Ottawa and Toronto), it features a small-but-effective cast, in a small-but-effective setting. From the confines of a radio station run from a church basement, controversial disc jockey Grant Mazzy (A Little Bit Zombie’s Stephen McHattie) peppers his talk show with extreme opinions, riling up the town . . . or at least his station manager, Sydney Briar (McHattie’s real-life wife, Lisa Houle).

They receive hints of a riot in progress nearby, and rely on “broken telephony” — in more than one sense of the phrase — to craft an evolving story on-air. Sydney struggles to keep Mazzy talking generalities, buying time to uncover more solid leads. But a flood of possible red herrings overwhelms even his provocation.

Rioters are closing in, irrational, shedding clothes, becoming violent, and babbling nonsense. Witnesses calling in break down or break up. And why do only Francophones seem able to cope with the crisis?

This production combines so many disparate tropes I enjoy, it’s tough to pin them all down. It’s the stage preparation of Waiting for Guffman, the backstage machinations of Prairie Home Companion, the audio-centrism of Blow Out, The Conversation, and parts of Sneakers, wrapped in the creepy vibe of a Twilight Zone.

Its greatest strength might be not knowing — or sharing — the “facts”. We share only in Mazzy’s isolation, less insulating than suffocating. Is he seasonally affected, drunk, delusional, or the butt of a practical joke? Is he the boy who cried wolf at last getting his comeuppance?

I don’t want to spoil the story’s unusually clever twists and conceits, some complex enough to warrant watching the film again. Suffice to say, little irony is left unmined with regards to communication.

Despite its pervasive minimalism, the experience is well-stocked with dread. It’s a locked room mystery which prompted me jot down “Theatre of the Imagination”, a reference to Orson Welles (Citizen Kane) and his Mercury Theatre. Funny to learn later on the filmmakers were inspired by War of the Worlds.

Frankly, I was just expecting a low-budget zombie flick. I sort of got it, however I didn’t expect the philosophical tsunami, the kind of video so exceptionally thought-provoking that note-taking began to intrude on viewing time. Burgess and McDonald have crafted something entertaining and intelligent, insightful and enigmatic all at once. It’s suspense for linguaphiles, a giddy mashup of drama, philosophy, semantics, and semiotics, yet exemplifies the adage “less is more”.

I can hardly imagine a reality in which Pontypool would be popular. Nonetheless it well deserves to be. It’s definitely levels of magnitude above and beyond torture porn.

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Rated 14A

97 minutes

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