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Starring: Stephen McHattie, Georgina Reilly, Lisa Houle, Rick Roberts

Directed by: Bruce McDonald

Produced by: Ambrose Roche, Jeffrey Coghlan

Written by: Tony Burgess

Distributor: IFC Films; also available on IFC's cable Video On Demand.

     I’ll take an ambitious miss of a movie over a conventional, but well-constructed one any day of the week, and Pontypool is proof of this. As slickly-made cliché-fests like X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Night at the Museum 2 invade multiplexes, this partial-success stands as a far superior movie to go see—or watch at home via IFC Video on Demand—because of its sheer originality. And even though this originality may ultimately be responsible for the over-the-top third-act that keeps Pontypool from achieving greatness, at least it’s bound to get the viewer thinking. In an age when even zombie films, once a staple of cinematic social commentary, are mostly made as “check your brain at the door”-style entertainments, we must celebrate this rare attempt at something greater.

     I don’t mean to liken Pontypool to Dostoevsky because, to be fair, it isn’t trying to be high-art. But screenwriter Tony Burgess’ script does demand that the viewer think once it reaches a pivotal plot-point at the end of its second act. This involves how the zombie-virus at the forefront of the action is spread, and it defies being a gimmick and instead becomes a way to contemplate communication in the Western world. (Unfortunately, that’s about all I can say without spoiling the revelation.) That all being said, the film doesn’t quite hit a home run in that the voice for the points of contemplation is the terribly written and acted Dr. Mendez (Hrant Alianak), who has a preposterous light-bulb moment in realizing the cause of the violent virus first seen at his practice. Pontypool also runs with the emerging ideas in a conclusion that feels equally rushed and undercooked, although the film admittedly benefits from the emotional high imbued in the audience as they race against the clock to figure it all out. But the ideas themselves are thought-provoking, and the premise behind them is pretty clever. Again, I return to my initial statement: a lofty movie that doesn’t achieve all its respective goals is better than a rote one that does.

     A lot of good stuff happens before the aforementioned big twist, too. In fact, the first two acts of Pontypool offer one of the most atmospheric and suspenseful build-ups I’ve ever seen. The setting is a radio studio where personality Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), shunned from the big markets due to his brash style, is adjusting to his new, little-heard morning broadcasts from the film’s title Ontario town. Raspy voice and provocative methods in tow, he heats up the cold Canadian winter, much to the excitement of young staffer Laurel Ann (Georgina Reilly) and the chagrin of producer Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle).

    Mazzy’s local news coverage is benign until “Sunshine Chopper” reporter Ken Loney (Rick Roberts), who really just sits in a truck playing helicopter sound effects in the background, phones in with shocking news. Speaking more hysterically each time he calls, as he gets closer and closer to what the audience later discover are zombies, Ken claims that death and destruction have ravaged Dr. Mendez’ office building and spread outward. While there are no reports on the wires, Mazzy runs with the story and things get progressively freakier. Director Bruce McDonald sets the stage with captivating intensity, which admittedly makes one wish the end was just as good, but works well in setting up the later revelations nonetheless. I should also note that the lead-up contains some thoughtful observations on the state of local broadcast journalism, as radio has lost significant listenership with the dominance of the Internet.

     Beyond its inventive plot-developments and well-crafted suspense, Pontypool also boasts a great lead performance by Stephen McHattie. The veteran actor has starred in over 100 features and TV shows—his role in 300 is probably the best known to the American masses—but one gets the feeling that this is his breakthrough role. With a honed radio-voice and a credibly cocky swagger, McHattie nails Mazzy, providing the material an initial sense of believability that aids in the build-up. And once the freaky stuff starts to happen, the actor’s work gets even better, as he perfectly portrays the shock-jock’s impulse to capitalize on the potential catastrophe and his near-absurdist personal reaction when he discovers that all of the violence is real. In the end, McHattie is one of the many memorable things about Pontypool that render it a respectable attempt, even if it doesn’t pan out completely. Those looking for chilling suspense followed by a truly “WTF!?”-inspiring finale need look no further.

-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews

Review Published on: 5.29.2009

Screened on: 5.24.2009 on a DVD screener.


Pontypool is Not Rated and runs 96 minutes.

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