Directed by Jesse T. Cook
In 1928, French intellectual Georges Bataille published the highly sexual and perverse novella “Story of the Eye.” Upon its release, it was considered pure pornography, but as time passed, its metaphor and subtext became representative of other works under the banner of “transgressive literature.” Bataille wrote the novella under the pseudonym Lord Auch. The word “auch” is a truncated form of “aux chiottes,” which is a slang term that means “to tell someone off by sending them to the toilet.” Loosely translated, Lord Auch means “Lord to the Shithouse.”
This, I believe, is essential to truly understanding the mad genius of Jesse Thomas Cook’s Septic Man. In the film, the quiet Canadian town of Collingwood is under a state of emergency due to contaminated water. People are dying, with dozens more sick of diseases heretofore unseen in the small town. A sewage worker named Jack (Jason David Brown) is called under mysterious circumstances by a man named Prosser (Julian Richings) to investigate and hopefully find the source of the contamination. With the whole town evacuated by the mayor (Stephen McHattie) and under the cover of night, Jack sneaks into the town’s water treatment plant and ultimately becomes trapped in a septic tank, whereupon his appearance begins to emulate his surroundings. Frightened and alone, he must rely on a seemingly gentle Giant with obscure motives (Robert Maillet) to escape while trying to stop his razor-toothed and murderous brother Lord Auch (Tim Burd).
On the surface, the connection to Lord Auch might be little more than an inside joke, but writer Tony Burgess, who brought us the philosophical thriller Pontypool, has never been one to simply lay it all out on the surface. He eschews explanation for abstraction, embedding heaps of metaphor and subtext into a film that many might see as little more than an exercise in excrement-filled absurdity. Like Bataille’s “Eye,” Septic Man is more than this. As Jack begins to descend into madness, his nightmare scenario literally becomes one. Time loses all meaning, he speaks to the dead, and visions of his wife and Prosser begin to appear to him as he drifts in and out of consciousness. The film is a horrific fever dream the likes of which only Burgess can conjure up, and it’s almost necessary to have an understanding of Burgess’s work to fully appreciate the film as a whole. Without it, the film might come off as a ridiculous and foolhardy exercise in absurdity.
But it’s not. As the film progress, the audience experiences the same confusion as Jack as he undergoes a transformation, turning him from a human into an otherworldly creature reminiscent of the Toxic Avenger. His transformation isn’t afforded a clear explanation, nor is it ever truly acknowledged beyond a gradual change in his physical appearance. There is no sudden discovery of his skin changing, nor any seemingly adverse physical effects beyond those on the surface. It just…happens. The why of it all is thus never truly explained; our confusion emulates Jack’s. The deeper into madness he descends, the more abstract the film becomes.
Despite some hiccups involving Brown’s all too frequent bouts of speaking to no one but himself and the audience, Cook and Burgess have crafted a bizarre yet inventive film that, despite my bias toward Burgess’s work, is not a film for everyone. Some might be put off by its seemingly nonsensical narrative and distinct lack of a straightforward plot, but with solid performances from Maillet, Richings, and Burd, a pulsing yet ambient score by Nate Kreiswirth, exceptional special effects, and, of course, Burgess’s tendency to keep you thinking long after the credits roll, Cook’s Septic Man is destined to be a divisive yet damned intriguing film.
4 out of 5