Like the punk-rock cousin of Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy, Joel Potrykus’ Vulcanizadora also concerns a voyage in the woods that pinpoints the exact moment an old friendship abruptly dies. The film also represents a maturing-of-sorts for the Michigan-based provocateur, revisiting characters first introduced in his 2014 film Buzzard and a few themes explored in his lesser-known 2016 feature The Alchemist Cookbook. Like many artists shifting from early to mid-career, Potrykus explores themes of having a family––or, in this case, abandoning it––while still retaining the edge present in his nascent works. It suggests a conundrum of sorts, but while other indie filmmakers start small and work towards scaling-up, this filmmaker refreshingly hasn’t. (His 2018 masterpiece Relaxer took place in the corner of an apartment, rather than expanding his slacker universe).

Vulcanizadora revisits the story of Marty Jackitansky (Joshua Burger) and Derek Skiba (Potrykus) as two guys that take to the woods outside Grand Rapids for a somber weekend of hanging out. Derek, recently divorced, works a desk job pushing papers in mortgage origination. Marty still hasn’t found himself and is awaiting sentencing for arson, a crime to which he fully admits guilt. It seems a trip neither wants to take, and Derek is initially annoyed at Marty’s attempt to create Faces of Death fanfiction on an old MiniDV camera.

Shot on 16mm by Adam J. Minnick and edited by Potrykus, Vulcanizadora‘s long takes hold us in a captivatingly awkward space that, once it’s apparent why both men are on this trip, prove more than just a walk in the woods. Marty is seemingly goaded into this expedition by the dominant Derek, who harbors a plan that includes glow sticks, snacks, vintage porn magazines, and homemade explosives.

Vulcanizadora is the most funereal picture Potrykus has made while retaining the edgy, pitch-black slacker comedy of his earlier filmography. As in Relaxer, The Alchemist Cookbook, and Buzzard, we observe just how far characters will take things, while his latest expands to examine the fallout and irony as Marty is forced to grow up. An amateur check-forger hiding out in the wilds of Detroit when we first meet him, he’s still in a state of arrested development and forced to carry on without much sense of purpose. At least his character in Relaxer had a stated goal.

The film mostly works by striking a delicate tonal balance that’s partly a freak show-of-sorts while also exploring the timely mental health crisis of men dropping out of society for one reason or another. Derek is regressing despite being, in some ways, a loving father who is proud of his son (played by the director’s own, Solo).

Potrykus’ work is an acquired taste. He’s chosen to remain in Michigan making provocative films with frequent collaborators rather than expanding his vision, casting up-and-coming stars, and connecting with larger indie distributors. Vulcanizadora is a step forward sans compromise––often hilarious, contemplative, even cautionary. Sometimes people get their shit together, sometimes they don’t, and sometimes they regress when they can’t handle the pressure.

Vulcanizadora premiered at the 2024 Tribeca Festival.

Grade: B+

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