the_alchemist_cookbook_2Year: 2016
Director(s): Joel Potrykus
Writer(s): Joel Potrykus
Region of Origin: US

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Rating: Unrated
Digital, Color, 88 mins

Synopsis: Suffering from delusions of fortune, a young hermit hides out in the forest hoping to crack an ancient mystery, but pays a price for his mania. (Source)

It goes without saying that if you play with fire, you’re bound to get burned. Director Joel Potrykus puts this simple, yet timeless idea to good use in The Alchemist Cookbook. Stripping his narrative down to the bare essentials, Potrykus delivers an irreverent character study that defies classification, focusing on an eccentric outsider and his attempt to conjure the Devil’s magic for personal gain. Part slacker comedy, part Faustian drama, Potrykus’ film operates on its own wavelength, eschewing generic jolts and easy answers in favor of psychological resonance. Star Ty Hickson is a revelation as well – he’s virtually the only performer in the film’s entire runtime, and has got an innate magnetism that really helps to sell the spiraling descent into madness. In truth, there’s no easy way to describe what Potrykus has done here, and that’s what’s so great about it.

When we first meet Sean (Ty Hickson), his self-imposed exile is already underway. He lives out of a ragged trailer in the Michigan woods, armed with just a generator, makeshift workshop and book of unholy incantations. Amidst trapping wildlife for food, he blares hip-hop, is consumed with creating indecipherable contraptions and hugs trees (among other things). His only company is a cat named Kaspar, who he keeps in a laundry hamper in between experiments. Through it all, however, is a feeling that Sean is being watched. He feels it, petitioning into the darkness for someone or something to show itself. The twist is, that he welcomes this – he wants to commune with the supernatural, but the more he waits without success, the more his mind begins to unravel. Left to his own devices, Sean begins to realize that he’s in over his head.

Hands, down the film excels through its intimate focus. There are no distractions as we follow Sean, alone, and in the middle of nowhere with nothing but his waning sanity. The solitude allows Potrykus to build slowly but surely towards his finale, with a loose narrative that unspools through mundane details, unexpected laughs and liberal doses of psychological torment. Since Potrykus isn’t explicit with the details of Sean’s plan or the black magic possibly at work, most of the fun is being able to fill in the blanks with our own imagination. What’s clear, though, is that we experience the lunacy enveloping him, watching addictively like a fly on the wall. Eventually, the film becomes more about what isn’t being said, with Sean’s punk rock ethos presenting him as a casualty of the system, someone who has very simple wants and has resorted to extreme measures to get them.

the_alchemist_cookbook_1As you can tell, the film wouldn’t be anywhere without Ty Hickson at the fore. With the action confined to a single setting, Hickson is a one man show, giving the film its urgency, while his shifting state of mind makes sure the film never repeats itself. His transformation, alone, is incredible, and the film is pretty much a portrait of how well he carries the character’s repressed angst. Hickson makes Sean feel as though he’s truly clinging on for dear life, knowing that at any minute, he could loose his grip on reality for good. As the cartoonish Cortez, Amari Cheatom is a bright spot despite his very minimal screen time. Whether he’s giving in to a dare in which he tries to pass off raw cat tuna as delicious, or giving co-star Hickson someone to spar off of, his colorful character leaves us wanting more.

The Alchemist Cookbook is a genre-bending, one-man show that questions how far we’d go to get what we really want, making us also wonder about the fine line between sobriety and mental illness. I realize I’m making the film sound heavy, and it is, but to Potrykus’ credit, it’s still totally entertaining, blending pop sensibility with unabashed weirdness in what’s undoubtedly one of the year’s most original films.