Published Aug 11, 2016Kazik Radwanski, one of Canada's most exciting new filmmakers, makes movies about very flawed men. From Derek, the creep at the centre of his debut feature Tower, to Erwin, the slightly better-adjusted (yet deeply dysfunctional) lead in his new film How Heavy This Hammer, Radwanski is fascinated by the flaws and foibles and fat that make up modern day masculinity. But rather than expose these schlubs with a too-easy tactile precision, Radwanski is generous in his depictions, his films working as gentle attempts to get on his characters' wavelengths.
How Heavy This Hammer, which premiered last year at TIFF before making the festival rounds, is his best work yet, and that's counting his dazzling short Cutaway. That film compared the relationship between blunt, imprecise physical labour with the emotional labour of impending fatherhood and a man's fumbling attempts at his relationship with his partner. By shooting the film all in closeups of hands, Radwanski imparted an emotional, impressionistic account of social realism, a thematic undercurrent in all of his works so far. How Heavy This Hammer continues this formal through line, shooting his lead, Erwin Van Cotthem, in closeups that never intrude, but instead inquire, examine and reflect.
We begin with one sad, comical reflection that suggests the fantasy worlds Radwanski's characters dream of escaping into. For Erwin, it's the world of massively multiplayer online fantasy games. Radwanski closes in on his eyes, and his glasses, as he glumly stares into his computer screen, the light reflecting off of his lenses. Underscoring the ridiculousness and inherent sadness of a man wishing to escape his earthly conditions, Radwanski cues the scene to opera music, a hypnotic effect that makes the world of the video game seem all the more alluring.
Erwin is a heavy-set, lumbering man who sheds any attempts at responsibility, never seen at work or doing much for his family. Instead, he aspires to be a raging Viking on the rugby pitch (shot across the city in Toronto's parks and west-end haunts), guzzling beer at an alarming rate. When he's not taking out a surprising amount of violent aggression on the field, he's falling asleep more than he should be, in movie theatres and on the couch in front of his kids, or yearning to escape to a world where he's a mythic legend in a fantasy realm.
How Heavy This Hammer excels as a character study about masculinity in crisis, a portrait of a very flawed man who is probably beyond saving. There's not much in the way of plot in the film's sparse 75-minute runtime, but every gesture, every glance, every movement is effortlessly constructed, a masterful execution that transcends most micro-budget independent films.
Feeling equal parts Cronenbergian and Bressonian, How Heavy This Hammer is both lightly comedic and deeply sad, one of the very best Canadian films of the year. While the character study is small in scope, its spirituality captures human emotions at their most cinematic and essential, and is absolutely worth checking out on the big screen during its run at the TIFF Bell Lightbox this week.