FCCB Festival: THE ALCHEMIST COOKBOOK Review

The Alchemist Cookbook is one of those intensely indie movies that looks to derive the amount of its intrigue from character moments and their psychology in order to avoid other elements that may cost more money than an individual willing to act for cheap because it is their passion. The Alchemist Cookbook actually comes from something of an established director in Joel Potrykus who has two prior features under his belt, but has remained at a certain level for what seems to be the desire to make films his own way. There is likely much I don't know, but it at least feels apparent by Potrykus' third feature length film that he doesn't necessarily care to transcend any major playing field with his particular brand of filmmaking. For this particular viewer this is something of a shame given Potrykus, who also writes each of his films, clearly has a penchant for the writing and developing of a certain mental state as represented in the visual form and with more at his disposal he might be able to create a better film from the material he's crafted than what we've been delivered here. It's easy to see what The Alchemist Cookbook is going for and in certain moments it succeeds, but only ever to certain extents. The sole presence in the film is occupied by Ty Hickson who seems capable of what Potrykus is after, but doesn't exactly strike the difference between acting and experiencing. We can see the performance happening in the actions. In short, The Alchemist Cookbook is a movie of possibilities. A blueprint for a better, higher-functioning film that might better entertain as well as enrapture its audience with its slow descent into madness were it to have more to play with. It feels as if The Alchemist Cookbook is unable to match its own ambitions, but like its protagonist is too scared to venture far enough to know what those truly are.

Hickson plays Sean, a young man who is clearly suffering from serious delusions. He's become a hermit of sorts who has befriended his cat, Kasper, and trusts no one else. In the opening scene of the film we are delivered Sean's dated and damaged trailer that sits among the fading fall colors. The sea of leafs leaves an impressionistic tone that indicates much of what we're literally seeing with our eyes is an afterthought to the rest of society. Like we love shiny and new material things before they quickly become dated and are passed along, we enjoy the vibrant colors of fall before winter comes and takes them away. Sean's environment can't help but feel like an abandoned corner of the world that no one cares to acknowledge much less visit. Why Sean has resigned to this lifestyle in what seems to be an otherwise modern world and why he hopes to accomplish what he does is largely a mystery as we are given very little context for our protagonists actions. The most we can glean from the information we're delivered within the first couple of chapters that Potrykus divides his film into is that Sean is more hiding out in the forest, though from what we're not sure, and in his isolation has come to desire cracking an ancient mystery that will ultimately and inevitably cause him to pay a steep price for his mania.

At eighty-two minutes The Alchemist Cookbook ultimately doesn't have enough of a narrative drive to sustain even this slim running time. Most of this time is spent watching Hickson observe or inspect his surroundings while occasionally chugging a Gatorade or trying to kill a possum-for food or for sacrificial purposes-I'm really not sure. In some regards, the film even purports to wanting to be as grating as its main player, but as for the question of why? I'm not especially sure. Sean's actions, that include venturing out into the wooded area around him in order to chop wood, gather suitable drinking water, and catch fish all seem to exist in an amateur attempt to live off the land that are undone when the only other character in the film shows up. There are small intermissions of actual human interaction between Sean and Cortez (Amari Cheatom) that consist of Sean complaining about all of the groceries (potato chips, cat food) that Cortez forgot to bring him. These conversations signal Sean is little more than a fake and a fraud in this world he hopes to exist within, but can't. That he can't actually commit to living off the land, but has to indeed still rely on medication to keep him balanced and pre-packaged food to keep him full makes the viewer dislike the guy who is anchoring the movie and maybe we're supposed to. Again-I'm not sure. The film goes as far as to show Sean getting ready to gut and clean a fish he catches, but never does it actually show him prepare, cook, or eat the fish. Instead, it shows him drinking the aforementioned Gatorade and eating the aforementioned potato chips. While this only makes the delusions of our main character even greater it also makes Hickson and his portrayal of Sean all the more annoying. Who is he to demand so much from Cortez if it was his choice to take on this lifestyle? Who is he to not pay bills that are apparently still being mailed out in his name? More than anything, it seems Sean isn't attempting to subvert modern society or become the rebel he so badly wants to be, but is instead running from the responsibility of becoming an adult that he couldn't handle-much like he's not actually living off the land because he can't handle it. He's a coddled child who finally gets punished for making a mess.

Most of me wants to believe the film is all one big joke/commentary discussing the fraudulent nature of most people who share a disdain for authority in that despite their hatred of an established institution or "the man" they don't actually have the intelligence or will to compose a response to such systems or even an alternative idea for what they rally against, but instead are simply people complaining because things aren't easier for them. I wish that was the ultimate point The Alchemist Cookbook was making, but rather it seems Potrykus is more interested in solely making a movie with a premise that might allow him to dive into topics such as black magic and nature’s secrets thus positioning his protagonist to stumble upon the sinister and the dangerous. And so, in the end, both the film and its character remain stuck in a small world they have no real interest in figuring out or even fully exploring. Instead, they'll remain satisfied in keeping things contained for fear of true expansion proving their narrow-minded theories wrong.