Relaxer is a film guaranteed to send some unsuspecting viewers heading for the exits within its first ten minutes or so — but not because of what it shows. Rather, it’s what Relaxer doesn’t show that will drive some audience members mad. Joel Potrykus’ fourth film is an experiment in minimalism which all takes place in a single room — in fact, a single couch. By turns maddening and hilarious, sickening and sorrowful, Relaxer is an intriguing, if shaky, next step for the director.
The film stars Joshua Burge, a Michigan-based actor who has previously starred in Potrykus’ Ape (2012) and Buzzard (2014). He plays Abbie, the meek, spineless brother to Cam (Ant-Man and the Wasp’s David Dastmalchian), a bully who delights in tormenting his younger sibling. Little is revealed about their personal lives, other than that neither is self-sufficient, as both rely on their mother to pay the bills. Abbie spends most of his days playing his Nintendo 64 in Cam’s apartment, having lost a job under dramatic circumstances. Cam delights in humiliating his brother by proposing “challenges” — inane stunts designed to humiliate Abbie and set him up for failure, such as forcing him to drink an unrefrigerated gallon of milk from a baby’s bottle in three-minute increments. Why Abbie always accepts these meaningless challenges designed for failure is unclear. Potrykus’ screenplay hints at past traumas, and Abbie seems to fall somewhere on the autism spectrum, but it’s never made explicit.
Cam’s final challenge to Abbie, issued just before he leaves the apartment for a multi-month sojourn, is to beat level 256 of the original Pac-Man. The level, referred to as the split screen, is an infamous glitch that prevents players from passing any further; it’s impossible to eat enough dots to move on. In 1999, now-disgraced arcade game expert Billy Mitchell offered a $100,000 prize to anyone who could beat the level before January 1, 2000 (obviously, no one ever did). Now alone in the apartment, Abbie must beat an unbeatable game, and he’s not allowed to get off the couch until he does.
In the background is the looming Y2K crisis. The film’s notes suggest that people in this alternate version of 1999 haven’t found a way to prevent the world-shattering glitch, although the film doesn’t make that clear at all. So while Abbie is mindlessly playing away, the world is slipping into madness outside the door. He is occasionally interrupted by visitors, including a hilarious Andre Hyland as a friend of sorts who happens to work at Chuck E. Cheese.
Though any rational person (and many irrational people as well) would have hopped up from the couch as soon as Cam left, Abbie is motivated by an intense desire to finally prove himself. (There’s also probably some major psychopathology at work.) Relaxer’s most stomach-churning moments arise from Abbie’s militant need to remain stationary, which makes eating and using the bathroom quite difficult. Armed only with a trash picker, he tries to subsist on half-eaten debris around the bug-infested apartment. After days (weeks?) of playing Pac-Man non-stop, he resorts to breaking a pipe in the wall to send in some fresh water, but only after he first breaks a sewage pipe and splatters himself in excrement. These mundanities of Abbie’s existence are both the source of the film’s greatest humor, as well as its most off-putting aspects. They also strain credulity in ways that harm the film. There are elements of surrealism and magical realism that pervade Relaxer, but there’s still enough of a connection to reality that Abbie’s ability to survive for five months stuck on a couch is frustrating.
This is an experiment for Potrykus, a challenge to see how much he can film without ever leaving a single room. However, while he and his cinematographer, Adam J. Minnick, devise clever camera movements and interesting lighting effects, they’re not enough to completely counteract the film’s occasional doldrums. Potrykus’ camera seems to become less and less fluid as the film progresses as if it were losing steam.
It’s Burge’s performance as Abbie that saves Relaxer and elevates it. With his bug-eyed stare, angular nose, and pouting lips, he manages to display a kind of whiny helplessness that’s totally captivating — funny yet heartbreaking. He seems to understand the fine line separating those we feel sorry for from those we despise, and he walks it like a tightrope. Though he lives in Michigan, Burge speaks with an undulating tone that would fit right in with that old SNL sketch “The Californians,” to the point that you expect him to suddenly start opening on the merits of the 405.
Though Relaxer has plenty of gross-out humor and bits of body horror throughout its runtime, it saves a burst of more serious gore that David Cronenberg might approve of for its final moments. The film might nominally be considered horror, or a horror-comedy, but it moves so fluidly between genres that it’s barely worth even trying to nail it down. Potrykus is creating something new here, something that leaves those distinctions behind. He occasionally stumbles, but Relaxer is still fascinating enough that you’ll want to make it all the way through — if you can.