While many indie filmmakers like Andrew Bujalski started making films in apartments with their friends and scaled up to larger projects, Michigan-based madman Joel Potrykus has gleefully and unapologetically scaled down as his career has progressed. His fourth outing, Relaxer, barely even takes place in an apartment, but rather in the corner of a living room where Abbie (Joshua Burge) is stuck on a couch for nearly six months. While staying there, his cruel (or tough love) brother Cam, (David Dastmalchian), gives him a series of challenges. For the first one, he needs to drink a gallon of curdled milk out of nine baby bottles. Under the watchful eye of a Sony handicam, he’s not permitted to leave the couch under any circumstances until he’s finished.
It’s these type of scenarios that are all over Relaxer, an unsettling and unapologetic comedy of untold horrors. A borderline masterpiece of “what the fuck” insanity, films that are simultaneously this absurd and this watchable are a feat. And after the disappointment of The Alchemist Cookbook, this is an excellent bounce back.
After finally finishing the first challenge, Abbie starts right away on his second challenge, beating Pac-Man on a rare import machine for a $100,000 cash prize. The only thing standing in his way is time. When he runs out of water he punctures a hole in the wall, first releasing waste, then pure drinking water before getting back to the game. Later, he fashions an external arm out of a tripod and one of those grabber things old people have around the house, which also sums up the creativity of Mike Saunders’ production design. Abbie’s only other line of defense is a pair of 3D glasses, which give him certain superpowers once the film goes off the deep end and into full camp.
Along the way there are folks that check in on Abbie, including social workers and a superintendent clad in a hazmat suit – visits that offer key details as Abbie’s life come into focus. Relaxer though isn’t a character study in obsessive-compulsive disorder so much as much as it’s a panic-stricken allegory for playing by the rules–however crude they are–even while staying committed to a punk rock spirit.
Relaxer is a hard film to “like,” full of commentary and situations that push the bounds of good taste and camp but it’s one of Potrykus’ best pictures; watchable, hilarious, uncompromising, and even thrilling in its final moments–if you have the stomach and patience for it.
Relaxer premiered at SXSW 2018.