Review: 'The Alchemist Cookbook' [Fantasia Fest 2016]

Alchemy, exciting as it might sound to tabletop gamers and lovers of the olden, was a failed pursuit of dreamers and intellectual explorers. Yes, it led to advances in chemistry, medicine, and other sciences, but those ultimate goals of transmuting base metals to noble, of achieving eternal life or curing the gravest ills, were never achieved. Whatever the right mixture of “stuff” for pulling off any of those feats, it was not to be found in an alchemist’s lab.

Something like the taint of this legacy of alchemy can be found in The Alchemist Cookbook, a film about a modern day (ish) devotee of that ancient art. This film, by writer/director Joel Potrykus, makes no pretense to or effort at existing in the standard narrative space of modern cinema. It eschews plot and lore and instead offers a narrow, claustrophobic vision of a man’s descent into passion and madness deep in the woods of Michigan. This, and little else. So much of what might be expected of a story is stripped away, and the result is a final product that feels lacking. As could be said of the countless attempts by what once passed for learned men to turn lead to gold, the recipe here is not quite right.

Sean (Ty Hickson) lives alone in the woods, hunkered in a little trailer in which he mixes metals and acids and who knows what else, in pursuit of some secret of alchemy. He drinks Gatorade and eats Doritos, enjoys the company of his cat Kas, and listens to cassette tapes. His friend Cortez (Amari Cheatom) sometimes pops around to bring him supplies and news from the outside world. And yet despite the seclusion he enters to better focus on the work, despite his passion for and devotion to his craft, his dreams fail to materialize. Slowly, his frustration builds, and we watch him sweat and fret as the toll of dealing with forces dark and arcane grows. And that is mostly all.

By design, there is little in the way of plot or dialogue, and motivation is unclear. The spartan set and cinematography also contribute to this minimalist bent. This is a film that expects you to do most of the work, which in itself is not always a bad thing. However, there isn’t enough present in the film for that to be a fruitful exercise for most people. If you watch Sean’s struggle for success in this film and are moved in some profound way, this likely speaks more to your individual experience than it does to what is actually put up on the screen. If you watch the film and find little to relate to or care about, rest easy knowing this is not at all your fault.

It’s short, yet manages to feel long; eerie, but never scary. There is a funny scene between Sean and Cortez early on that threatens to lend personality to the film, yet is abandoned for long stretches of Sean brooding and pondering in his self-imposed exile. It’s several things a little bit and several more not at all, and that lack of commitment diminishes the experience.

If your dream cinematic fare is voyeuristic depression porn, you may find lots to like here. For most, a less experimental film with a stronger story will be more worth the time.