#9: Pontypool

By Brock Wilbur · March 8, 2012

"It's not the end of the world. It's just the end of the day."

The Devil's in the details, but what's between the lines?

In 2001, Dilbert creator Scott Adams penned a small novella entitled God's Debris: A Thought Experiment. This pocket-sized volume never shook the foundations of the theological community, but it resonated deeply with me, if only as an introduction to Socratic discourse. The narrative concerns a lonely man visited by an "angel" who engages him in conversation about the nature of God, human interaction vs. purpose, and destiny. The take-away concept was that an all-powerful being would get bored of having total control of the universe, but what if he made himself a lesser, yet more intriguing, force? What if God existed as probability? Popping in and out of existence; moving the universe towards a goal but on an uncertain path, exerting will in unknowable yet noticeable ways?

The opening monologue of Bruce McDonald's Pontypool (2008) references a similar theory by Norman Mailer: "In the wake of huge events, after them and before them, physical details, they spasm for a moment; they sort of unlock, and when they come back into focus, they suddenly coincide in a weird way. Street names and birthdates and middle names, all kind of superfluous things appear related to each other. It's a ripple effect. So, what does it mean? Well… it means something's going to happen. Something big. But then, something's always about to happen."

Both of these notions side equally with the idea that the unknowable "beneath" is more powerful than overt control, and that the great mystery of life may also be the purpose of life. But is the reverse true? If so, does understanding equate to death?

Shock jock Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) isn't the man he used to be. Fallen from grace — as far as a professional inciter can — he's been reassigned to morning radio duties in the small Ontario town of Pontypool. Within a converted church basement, he broadcasts school closures and obits, fueled by resentment, boredom, and whiskey. He's a hero to a starry-eyed engineer, Laurel Ann-Drummond (Georgina Reilly), and a nuance to be wrangled by producer Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle).

For the first fifteen minutes, Mazzy treats the airwaves like a crayon-wielding toddler meeting fresh wallpaper. He bastardizes and re-imagines the news of import into tales of violence and intrigue, daring his listeners to voice their opposition and turning the members of his production staff against each other. He recounts his morning commute, and an odd experience with a woman who approached him, then communicates with Sunshine Ken in their news chopper (Ken actually sits on a hill, making helicopter sound effects).

The entire morning segment is daft wordplay, overlapping into nonsense and drifting further from conceptual reality, but also grounding us in the filmic world and our location. Pontypool feels more like a college theater production than a feature film: the three characters, the static setting, the wordiness and inconsistent tone… even the lack of variation among camera angles. There is an unknowable Other in the world outside, but we're safe because we'll never move; and the outside won't be invited in. There's just no space for it. Or budget. Whatever the rules are that we communally accept.

For a town where nothing ever happens, Pontypool begins to deliver excitement for Mazzy, even if he can't stop exaggerating. Two drunk ice fishermen on the road are accidentally reported as a hostage situation, and the DJ can't go without accusing the police officers involved of also being drunk. A family band, scheduled as morning entertainment, appears from nowhere. Mazzy calls his old manager to let him listen to these… don't know what to call this. If you put on blackface for a minstrel show, what do you call white people performing, dressed as Arabs? It's more bewildering than offensive, until the youngest girl breaks down. She's unable to remember a specific word, and just begins spouting off repetitive nonsense. It sounds silly, and Mazzy treats it as such, but it's also uncanny enough to get under your skin.

That's when the reports begin pouring in. Inexplicable violence. Cannibalism. A local doctor's facility overrun by fanatical mob. Explosions. Military vehicles. Quarantine. Mazzy tries to decipher the phone calls they receive, only to be shoved on to the next by Sydney, who doesn't want unsubstantiated rumors broadcast on the air.

It's beautiful to behold, and a testament to the acting and filmmaking (and especially sound department/V.O. actors), just how powerful these sequences become. Hearkening back to the days of radio tension, and borrowing just enough from the infamous War of the Worlds broadcast, the descriptions from survivors and our involvement in their journey through the Other comes back to us via the terrible toll it takes on Mazzy, personally. By the time he snaps, the true madness has already spread to Laurel Ann, and now the Other is inside.

Pontypoolgoes from odd-but-clever indie-horror at this point to pure sardonic genius. I've never felt like including a SPOILER ALERT in Filmpocalypse before, but today's the day:

While a near-textbook Zombie apocalypse is overtaking the town, and drawing the Mad towards the radio station, Mazzy and Sydney attempt to decipher how the disease is spreading, and what it's doing to Laurel Ann. Between a few bizarre external influences, it is revealed the disease exists in words. Not all words, and not all the time. Terms of endearment, phrases that conflict, and so forth. But more importantly, it only transfers through the English language.

A linguistic-based zombie Armageddon. We've traded brain-eating for semiotics.

The level of violence compensates for this academic approach: what happens to a human body when it fails to transfer the infection is… splattery, to say the least. But the narrative situation of a man who prattles on endlessly about nothingness, faced with an obligation to share his findings in hope of saving the world, but also in danger of destroying via the same action? Priceless. Mazzy has spent his life twisting subtle truths into nonsensical jumbles, and humanity's last hope is his ability to re-arrange the building blocks of our brain patterns, and sell it to us with gusto.

He has becomes both God and probability, existing at the whim of his tools.

Pontypoolstructures itself perfectly around the opening premise. Small details align to create big events in our world, but knowing which details will be bullets is impossible until after the gun has already fired. And more importantly, how are we to determine reality in a society driven by those who drift from it? Does communication build us toward anything, or are we at the mercy of an inevitable end that none of us can define? What if we're in a game where knowing the rules means you lose?

Don't understand?