A black-and-white view of New York City. Soaring music as a succession of beautifully composed shots appears on the screen. A story of a relationship. If this sounds like the beginning of Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979), you’re not far off. However, this is also the beginning of Kill The Monsters, the latest feature by another New York filmmaker, Ryan Lonergan, playing at the 26th Raindance Film Festival. He recognises the influence of the legendary filmmaker.
In Kill The Monsters, however, the music is not by Gershwin, but by Sibelius. The lush cinematography does not aim, as it did in Woody Allen’s classic, to romanticise but to put the story firmly in a setting that is not realistic. The film defines itself, after all, as an American allegory.
What follows is a boisterous 80-minute ride following a gay, polyamorous relationship as one of its members finds himself ill and the throuple decides to take a cross-country road trip to get to a doctor who can find a cure.
Kill The Monsters
The movie is as much an exploration of this three-way relationship as it becomes a more overt analysis of the history of democracy in the United States. Although Ryan Lonergan’s choices are firmly rooted in his knowledge of the American 19th century, all the different layers of the film – narrative, emotional and political – keep the watch engaging, intriguing and overall extremely thought-provoking.
The title comes from a speech that John Quincy Adams – the sixth President, who was then Secretary of State – who said that “America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy”. The successive phases in the relationship mirror chronological stages of maturity in the development of a democratic political system, with the throes of war, both civil and international, deftly tackled along the way.
A political statement?
Watching this film in 2018, the audience is bound to think that the filmmaker’s intention was to make an anti-Trump film – as a few have already been made and many more are certain to be coming. This is one of my first questions to Ryan Lonergan when we sit down for coffee not too far from the cinema where his film is going to be screened, as he is just fresh off the plane from New York.
“The impetus to make the film actually pre-dates this,” he says referring to the 2016 election. “I had just re-read George Orwell’s Animal Farm, which is equally about animals overtaking the farm as it is about communism at the height of the Cold War. And the situation in the country was dire enough that I wanted to say something about it.”
It soon becomes clear over the course of our conversation that Lonergan is an avid and astute follower of his country’s politics. At the time of our meeting, Brett Kavanaugh is being auditioned by the Senate for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court and that is his prime worry. “Do you guys hear much about it over here?” he asks me with a slightly worried look. His observation of the political tides, the end of the Obama era, the screams of the middle class that would result in Trump’s election, his worry about the disconnect between the mainstream left and right and the middle class were the impetus to make the film more than anything else.
The urgency to make a statement is apparent. Much like Trump has been the symptom for many deeper factors, the comment about the current President of the United States was also added to the film later on. “Of course I was following the phenomenon,” he says, seemingly trying to avoid mentioning the individual by name, “even though I thought and hoped that it would peter out. But at some point during the shoot, he had snatched the nomination, so it had become enough of a reality that I thought I needed to address it.”
In the polyamorous relationship, the more vulnerable character is also the one that is ill, and is in need of treatment. Treatment for what? “A general feeling of malaise.” “What’s that?” retorts another character. “Like fatigue.” Tellingly, the affliction remains undiagnosed by the more looming characters in the relationship.
The different levels of reading of the movie are subtle and pointed. I quickly realise that Lonergan made a film that is very much like him: sharp, focused, affirmed and extremely engaging.
A one-man band
It’s all the more of an accomplishment when you look at the end credits. Lonergan wrote, directed, produced, starred in, and edited the film himself. I wonder whether he is one of the many actors who produce their work to showcase their talent. “Not at all. It’s all part of the same process for me. It obviously starts chronologically with the writing. But then it’s all about getting that story made. Then you spend a frustratingly small and intense amount of time shooting, after having spent so long writing it. Then you edit, which is writing your film all over again, one final time.”
The film is very much Lonergan’s through and through. Kill The Monsters nevertheless showcases a wide array of talent; both in front of the camera with fellow actors Garett McKechnie, Jack Ball and Julia Campanelli who gives a scene-stealing turn as a German neighbour of the three leading men, as well as behind the camera with Andrew Huebscher’s extraordinary black-and-white cinematography.
The captivating establishing shots of Kill The Monsters were preceded by a quote by Benjamin Franklin. “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb deciding what to have for dinner.” (It comes with a warning). Given how perfectly it fits the dynamic of the polyamorous relationship at the heart of the film, you would think that it was written at the top of the first draft of the script. “That also came much further along the process. There was another quote, by Abraham Lincoln, which had a similar point. But this one worked so perfectly that I used it instead. The funniest thing is… the film became something else now that we are in the Trump era. And I did research on this quote, and Benjamin Franklin never actually said it. Which just fits perfectly with the comment on today’s politics, when facts are seemingly becoming irrelevant.”
As we talk about the film, I realise that every question I have about his work, Ryan Lonergan has an answer for. That is simply because I ask him about his creative process. And our conversation proves something that was apparent upon seeing the first few seconds of the film when selecting submissions for the Queer Strand at this year’s Raindance film festival: everything you see on screen has been matured, thought over and carefully weighed to dazzling effect. This is just one of the many compelling aspects of his work.
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