Low-budget, Canadian and sneaky as hell, Bruce McDonald’s “Pontypool” is a movie that restores your faith in the ability of genre movies to rabbit-punch your limbic system and your frontal lobe at the same time. Just grabbing the ingenious premise with two hands is a moviehead thrill: the setting is the local radio station for a tiny Ontario town, so small that it occupies not its own building but the basement of a church. The protagonist is Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), a grizzled, boozy, pretentious shock jock whose downward career spiral has landed him in the provincial wilderness, where his indulgent ramblings are largely unwelcome and where he’s only supposed to deliver weather and traffic news. His foils are the patient station manager (Lisa Houle) and a young intern (Georgina Reilly). Amidst the morning-drive drudgery, reports begin to trickle in, of crowds forming and riots beginning and people being chased and torn apart…
We know we’re never going to get out of that basement. The conceptual brilliance of novelist/screenwriter Tony Burgess’ set-up is irresistible, pitting a classic “Rio Bravo” trapped-by-a-siege scenario against the contingencies of talk radio (in which McHattie’s self-involved washout finds himself in the position of being the community’s, and the world’s, only source of information about what appears to be a zombie plague of some kind). The measures of discovery and disbelief are spot-on every step of the way; the fact that we hear but do not see the chaos is a genuine creep-out, in a Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds”-kind of way; and, it should be said, McHattie simply rocks here, so astutely painting this character’s ruinous history and self-entertaining attitude on his face and in his voice that you could see the actor landing a shock-jock radio gig for real if in fact he weren’t so ridiculously busy acting. (Too often relegated to episodic TV, McHattie has appeared in 20 different projects in the year since “Pontypool” began appearing at film festivals.)
But all that’s not quite reason enough to love “Pontypool,” if that’s all it was — a radio-inflected, bell-jar zombie suspenser. The MacGuffins for such scenarios are most often just that — arbitrary and meaningless plot integers (space probes, bacterium) useful only for a little credibility and a big push forward. But here, it’s a different animal, so different I wouldn’t even call it a spoiler: eventually Mazzy and Co. (including the hilariously relaxed Hispanic doctor who may have started the crisis, tumbling in through a cellar window) figure out that, somehow, certain words or even language itself is communicating the virus.
On the surface, it’s a far-out idea echoing out of Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash” (a copy of which is glimpsed), and one that’s aptly focused on a radio station, but soon enough you realize that the premise is absurd enough to be Absurdist, soon after Roland Barthes is quoted, and the risible Dr. Mendez makes the Barthesian case that language, in general, can be defined as a virus, even as the cannibalistic-infected hordes hammer at the doors. Can the Post-Structuralists be far behind? “Stop understanding what you are saying!” Mazzy hollers at one point, evoking everyone from Kierkegaard to the Talking Heads in one impacted existentialist moment.
Note, as British critic Jonathan Romney did, the small plastic rhinoceros on the soundboard, and suddenly you realize you’re in Eugene Ionesco Land, and witnessing a sidewise remake of “Rhinoceros” (filmed for real in 1973 with Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, but also staged by Welles in 1960), in which the denizens of a small town (mostly unseen) begin to inexplicably turn into rhinos. For the French/Romanian Absurdist playwright, it was a parable of fascism, of course, but rhetoric is the totalitarian’s primary weapon, and in “Pontypool,” rhetoric itself is the poisoning agent, literally and irrationally transforming an orderly society into raving madness.
What’s a drunken, wiseass loudmouth with a microphone to do? (Bizarrely, “Pontypool” is in the pipeline for a Hollywood remake.) By its third act, “Pontypool” doesn’t even try to be a thriller any longer, but embraces its philosophical agenda and dares to suggest that, in a world of twisted meanings and public lies and empty verbiage, Surrealist poetry and its freedom from common sense may be our salvation.