Tales from the Cryptid
By Hazem Fahmy

Sasquatch Sunset
Dir. Nathan and David Zellner, U.S., Bleecker Street

The Zellner brothers are obsessed with revisiting myths. Their most popular film, Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter takes seriously the urban legend of a Japanese woman named Takako Konishi who travelled all the way from Tokyo to the Midwest in search of the treasure buried at the end of the Coen brothers’ Fargo. At once humorous and thoughtful, their engagement with the rumors around Konishi’s very real, tragic death sharply probed our torturous relationship to media and isolation. Damsel, their 2018 follow-up, is a heavy-handed, effective satire of the gentlemanly frontiersman trope, skewering the fundamental racism and misogyny of westward expansion. Though the subject they turn towards in Sasquatch Sunset is a supernatural one, their concern with the tropes of Americana and the afterlife of the frontier remain central.

Set in the achingly gorgeous forests of Northern California, Sasquatch Sunset wordlessly follows a family of four bigfoots––potentially the very last of their kind––as they strive, and frequently fail, to survive over the course of a year. A combination of impressive costuming, mime-training, and convincing grunting transform Nathan Zellner, Riley Keough, Jesse Eisenberg, and Christophe Zajac-Denek into the dwindling clan, and each skillfully balances pathos with slapstick, despite being hidden behind layers of fur and latex. Zellner plays the pseudo-Freudian primal father, whose aggression and impatience lead to his untimely demise. Keough plays the burdened mother, who must birth and raise a new child while desperately protecting two hapless teens. As the older of the children, Eisenberg initially has it rougher when his puberty stokes the ire of his jealous father, but once he meets his own tragic death, Zajac-Denek's character must bear the unjust responsibility of protecting his infant sibling while growing up himself. Their nomadic life doesn’t make any of this easier.

The lean 90-minute runtime is cut into four acts, each corresponding to a season. The first, Spring, ironically ends in a burial, and it’s all downhill from there. The guitar-heavy score––by frequent Zellner collaborators The Octopus Project––is quiet in moments of tragedy and loudest in ones of transition, emphasizing the awe inspired by the landscapes the sasquatches are juxtaposed against during their seasonal migrations. In between major events, namely death and birth, immobile wide shots simply observe the family as they rummage through the forest for food, play with one another, and explore disconcerting signs of human life. The absence of score in these scenes makes it easy to imagine David Attenborough’s voice explaining the kinds of berries the family eats or the leaves they use to build temporary shelter. The family defecates, vomits, and bangs its way through the turbulent year, but there are also moments of unbearable devastation—the gross-out humor of these narrative lulls renders the aesthetic allusion to documentary a parodic one. About once a season, the sasquatches rhythmically bang sticks against hollow tree trunks, harmonically crying out to kin who never respond. Their disappointment is palpable from the beginning, but it becomes agonizing by the end as each death radically raises the stakes of their isolation. One begins to wonder if this mother, son, and infant are all that remain of this species we’ve just spent a compressed year with. The tonal dissonance between the oddball humor and this heavy sense of immeasurable loss comes into sharp focus.

How to make sense of such whiplash? A 14-year-old video game provides an illustrative response. Sasquatch Sunset and Rockstar Games’ 2010 revisionist Western epic Red Dead Redemption would appear to share little in common. The latter is a brutal dramatization of the southwestern United States on the eve of the frontier’s closure, when the emancipatory dream of settlement (for white people) gave way to the nightmare of American modernity’s ceaseless capitalist extraction; a seeming far cry from both the heartbreak and the hijinks the bigfoots experience. The careful balance of satire and gravitas that characterized Red Dead Redemption was soon followed by the kitsch of Undead Nightmare, a stand-alone expansion that reimagined its melancholic setting and characters as a goofy zombie romp. Instead of fighting outlaws and Pinkertons, the player now shoots hordes of the undead and a few mythical monsters to boot. One of those beasts is bigfoot. In the infamous mission “The Birth of the Conservation Movement,” the player is tasked by a terrified frontiersman to clear a hilly area of its allegedly baby-eating sasquatches. After you put down six of the wild creatures, you come across a final one sitting somberly under a tree by a river. A cutscene then ensues in which the sasquatch weeps as he informs the player, in perfect English, that they are a docile, vegetarian people who have lived in those hills for one thousand years––until you murdered all of them, this wretched survivor notwithstanding. After the player takes command of the protagonist again, the poor sasquatch remains under the tree, crying, begging to be killed and thus spared the misery of being the last standing member of his race. It is horrifying and devastating, and it never comes up again.

The jarring ending of Undead Nightmare’s sasquatch episode, paired with the swiftness with which the story moves on from it, renders the whole thing a potent metaphor for the unbridled cruelty and wanton destruction of westward expansion, then uses irony to immediately catapult the player safely away from the horror. Despite being a medium and a decade-plus apart from it, Sasquatch Sunset recalls this episode of the game, bringing the viewer dangerously close to a reckoning with the atrocities of the frontier—before undercutting it with explosive diarrhea and multiple erect sasquatch penises. But the echoes between these two stories reveal a tension rooted deeper than the surface of either text, one intrinsic to the sasquatch myth-cum-media phenomenon itself. Bigfoot was always a conduit for the Anglo North American settler’s anxieties about the land they occupy.

The way American and Canadian media has portrayed the cryptid owes much to indigenous folklore and spiritual tradition, specifically that of the Sts’ailes people of the West Coast First Nations, but there is a world of difference between the sasquatch and the Halq’emeylem word sasq’ets, from which it derives. Whereas the sasq’ets is a sacred being, a protective shapeshifter with a foot in both the spiritual and the material realms, the sasquatch has been imagined as a missing link between humans and primates, a crypto-zoological creature whose concrete existence is bound to be proven and classified by science any day now. Though bigfoot remains an object of intense speculation and wonder among Americans and Canadians––by some estimates, about 29% and 21% respectively—the nature of that speculation has changed over time. Settlers first imagined bigfoot as either a danger or a curiosity. In both Undead Nightmare and Sasquatch Sunset, however, a shift is perceptible. Bigfoot transforms from a symbol of the Pacific Northwest’s unsettling mysteries to one of settler guilt, a vessel in which to deposit the existential horror of what has been done to this land, its peoples, and its environment. The manner in which the sasquatch is portrayed always reflects a larger concern with both colonialism and indigeneity.

And this is where things get awkward. How do you critically revisit the sasquatch without coding a mythical primate as an indigenous person? The Zellners don’t lean into such a crude comparison, yet it’s hard not to read the dissolution of the cryptids’ community as an echo of the real-life devastation settler-colonialism has wrought on this continent’s peoples. In a grim scene during Winter, the remaining family members come across a hill that has been brutally deforested. The sasquatches’ screams imply that their kind used to roam the area. Environmental destruction at an industrial scale––and its asymmetrical disenfranchisement of indigenous people, specifically––is a crime that is anything but relegated to the past. The film ends just as the sasquatches stumble across a hokey museum dedicated to them. They confuse the woodcarving of a bigfoot outside the small building as one of their own and are displeased and confused when they realize it cannot grunt back. The last thing we see before a cut to black is their despondent faces beneath the sign that has reduced them to a relic.

Does any of this mean we shouldn’t produce any more media about sasquatches? I find it much more interesting to ask: why are so many North Americans so invested in proving the reality of bigfoot? I think the Zellners understand quite well the layer of reality that was always embedded in the bigfoot myth, but this is also why Sasquatch Sunset is the brothers’ most juvenile film; the pooping and the puking attempt to ameliorate the unbearable tragedy. Kumiko’s sadness was ultimately her cross to bear. Damsel’s unlucky heroine still ends the film with a shot at freedom. But the sasquatches? Their plight is connected to all of us who inhabit these lands. We watch the sunset with them.