There have been very few guarantees in 2020, but here’s one: “The Twentieth Century” is the most bizarre movie you’ll watch this year. That is, unless you can think of another film featuring a pee calligraphy contests, a bloody baby seal Whac-A-Mole, shoe-huffing fetishes and a violently ejaculating cactus – all set against the backdrop of turn-of-the-century Canadian politics. (Pardon me, I forgot “Green Book.”)
Matthew Rankin’s feature-length debut is more than just a curio or amusing midnight oddity, though. Sure, it’s like a special episode of “Drunk History” that burned through all the beer, wine, vodka and moonshine before dipping into the REALLY weird stuff in the back of the liquor cabinet – all directed by Tim & Eric. But it’s not just hilariously surreal northerner-nudging silliness. “The Twentieth Century” is gorgeous to look at, a sneakily snappy satire about Canadian history and culture as well as the diseased world of politics, and, strangest of all amongst the goofiness, a sincere drama witnessing the battle for a man’s sole-sniffing soul.
William Lyon Mackenzie King (Dan Beirne, Sonny from “Fargo” season two) is destined to become the prime minister of 20th century Canada – at least according to his overbearing bedridden mother, played by Louis Negin in one of several drag performances and genderblind casting choices scattered throughout the film. However, his family’s great plans for power, love and making tuberculosis against the law go awry when he ties for second place in the country’s political Olympics, excelling at the passive-aggressive waiting in line and aforementioned baby seal clubbing but stumbling just short in such essential contests like leg wrestling and ceremonial ribbon cutting.
Broken and broke, his father indebted to a shadowy figure with a cactus hand, King loses himself to his suppressed secret vice: a sexual fondness for sniffing boots. But when the political winds blow his way again, with Canada’s Governor General Lord Muto (Sean Cullen) grooming him as the man to lead them further into the Boer War and as the husband to his harp-playing daughter Ruby, King gets a second chance at living up to his destiny and making his mother proud – a relationship that even Norman Bates and Freud would side-eye. Also, there’s a bird puppet named Giggles, a peace-loving revolutionary hatched from an egg, a codpiece loudly alarm-sensitive to erections and a murderous narwhal, in case all of that plotting sounded too ho-hum predictable.
It will be surprising, I’m sure, to find out that’s not an entirely accurate telling of Canadian turn-of-the-century history. Rivalries are concocted, timelines are bent and twisted, and there were significantly fewer exploding phallic cacti. (The real-life Mackenzie King, however, did have occult leanings that convinced him to hire mediums to helps speak to dead historical figures and family pets, so it’s not he didn’t raised some eyebrows in reality.)
Not like “The Twentieth Century” has any interest in being a normal biopic whatsoever. Instead, it trades in tropes or accuracy for relentless ridiculousness – from the bluntly bizarre, like the erotic boot-sniffing or the political competitions, to more nuanced absurdity, like King’s constant insistence that Ruby’s harp is actually a trumpet, his visits to a sick orphan at the “House of Defective Children” or all the damn puffin cream and maple walnut foods. Rankin constantly finds new ways to surprise the audience with some new weird concept – like the political contests or the hedonistic wasteland of Winnipeg, complete with a profane local dressed only in a tutu – or goofy gag, all delivered with a pitch-perfect straight face that makes this demented afterschool special even funnier.
If you think the comedy’s one of a kind, wait until you get your eyes on “The Twentieth Century.” Even if its painfully horny, oddly ominous surrealist humor isn’t your bag – it’s the kind of movie that tops off a fancy dinner embarrassment with a man dressed as a giant bird dropping in – there’s too much creativity and insane imagination on screen to turn away (even if you want to as King’s cactus goes about its messy business).
A blissful blend of Canadian Guy Maddin’s gonzo aesthetic, German expressionism’s heightened shadows and emotions, and gauzy TV melodramas, Rankin’s vision of the new century up north is gorgeously maniacal. Characters zig-zag through clean and chilly ice blue art deco worlds, appearing to canted-angled crowds through triangle windows while their shadows taking ski lifts to their homes or riding fake loons to their meetings – all filmed with an aesthetic as mesmerizingly hazy as its grasp on historical facts. Each unapologetically fake frame underlines its goofy ambitions and is just purely fascinating to look at, a 1920s poster come to sharp life.
And just when you worry you’ve seen it all, he throws a new spectacularly silly or outrageous image at the audience, like a chaotic propaganda call to arms that “Starship Troopers” would be proud of, the green chopped-down slanted hills of Vancouver – complete with King disguised in a brown paper bag – or a glowing final maze of lights, mirrors and shimmering silver.
Made-to-be midnight movies like “The Twentieth Century” can run the risk of exhausting their viewers or playing like empty exercises in gorgeous gimmickry or “LOL random”-ness, but Rankin’s film nimbly avoids that fate. For one, even with all the wildness, there’s a clear purpose to Rankin’s lunacy, making a giddy parody of Canada’s woodsy reputation and prim and proper attitudes, ridiculous rituals and polite behavior hiding repressed political heartlessness, embarrassment and cactus-exploding depravity. There’s somehow a crazy logic and point to its eye-catching, brain-breaking unpredictable ways.
Most of all, though, is that, for all its off-the-wall oddness, there’s actual substance to the strangeness – thanks especially to Beirne. All of the other characters, big and small, are memorable – a special shoutout to Cullen, howlingly channeling Ned Beatty in “Network” as the country’s conniving, war-mongering kingmaker – but Beirne gives his political mamma’s boy milksop emotional depth and sincerity as he’s pulled every which way but normal. Whether visiting a sick child or snatching a lost boot away for later, there’s somehow a genuine heart to it all with Beirne’s earnest performance, not a wink in sight, and Rankin at the helm, making the audience laugh while also making the preposterous political backroom drama have some actually compelling heft.
It’s hilariously fake history, but the stakes feel serious and real for King, for the country and for the audience by the bloody, bizarre finale, helping land Rankin's prickly political punchlines about boilingly repressed men of ambition and how, in the fight between hope and hate, change or rage, a third flag tends to fly: the disappointing status quo. “Give the people hope and they’ll always be disappointed; give them nightmares, and they’ll follow you straight into hell,” preaches Lord Muto – fake history that’s echoes all too real and current.
Admittdly much of that cultural commentary and comedy here is undeniably Canuck-specific – Rankin noted one of his key inspirations are the “Heritage Minutes” Canadian history dramas, a reference for few this side of the northern border. But much like how “Airplane!” is hilarious even if you’ve never seen “Zero Hour,” even if you can feel some of the northern-focused nuances flying overhead like one of Canada’s fictional public transportation ski lifts, “The Twentieth Century” is specifically pointed but universally funny, fascinating and wholly committed to the bit – not to mention a most unusual way to get people interested in learning more about Canadian history and its national psyche. Like a lot of midnight movies, Rankin’s film is an inside joke – but it's the rare inside joke that’s a hoot for everyone.
"The Twentieth Century": ***1/2 out of ****
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.