Adam Egypt Mortimer is on a roll...
...After last year’s Daniel Isn’t Real, a heartfelt examination about trauma, mental health, and imaginary friends, Mortimer has returned with the brilliant Archenemy, and while it is once again examining some of the same emotional motifs, subjects, concepts, and is presented in a similar colorful perspective, the two films could not be farther apart.
Max Fist, the protagonist in Archenemy is played by a rugged and unkempt Joe Manganiello, who begins the film drunkenly telling a stranger at a bar about his homeworld, which he was the protector, hero, and leader of, and how eventually to save the city he loved and to stop his enemy he was flung through the fabric of reality and ended up on Earth. It seems he tells this story to many strangers to get free drinks at the bar, and here on earth, it seems he is houseless and living on the street. It is a stark and sad portrait of a man who seems to have nothing and is clinging to a fantastical reality where his life was better. Meanwhile, we meet Hampster (Skylan Brooks) a young man who wants to make his mark on the world through social media, highlighting the harsh world of poverty and drugs that he lives in. Along the way, he befriends Max and starts to publically post the stories Max tells to the internet which go viral, and more and more people start to take notice of Max Fist. This relationship between Hamster and Max is the crux of the film, but far from the only part that connects to the whole story. Mortimer lets the two actors exist in their roles, while the audience spends most of the time questioning, as does Hampster, whether anything Max says is real or if it’s just the drug-addled visions of a houseless man on the streets of Los Angeles. The two actors play incredibly well off each other and create the space for believability.
The other major plotline revolves around Hampster’s sister Indigo (Zolee Griggs) and her means of selling drugs for, and running errands for a man named only the Manager (Glenn Howerton). When one of these assignments goes wrong, Max Fist has to get involved to help the siblings which eventually leads to a connection to the past and whether or not Max is a hero in our world and the city he claims to come from. It’s an examination of what makes a hero a hero. It deals subtly with mental illness and the powerful effects that trauma can impact on one’s life. This from the outset looks very much like an off the beaten path superhero story. While there are moments of heroism, and some amazing animations that show the place, and power, of where Max Fist is from, ultimately the film is about the emotional ties that bind these characters together. It’s about finding the purpose of why they are alive. Each of the actors embraces this and though the journey is different for the three leads, it’s arrived through the lens of a beautiful film that wants to have a discussion. If the audience is willing to engage it can have profound effects, and this is only feasible by each actor stepping up to the table.
The performances from top to bottom soar in Archenemy. Griggs and Brooks act like a true sibling pair. Indigo is the overprotective sister who puts herself in harm’s way so she can give her brother a chance at life. Griggs’ performance is always cool on the exterior but you can sense the vulnerability in every scene she is in. Her character finds herself in many situations where she is over her head; especially in a scene with Paul Scheer that will be talked about a lot in reviews, and in conversations revolving around Archenemy. The scene is a crucial part of the plot and is executed to perfection by Scheer, but without Grigg’s foil to his intensity, the strength of his performance would not work. Skylan Brook’ as Hamster is so on point for someone who wants to rise above where they are in life but may not have the best means to do so. Brooks shines in every scene he is in, but as he is getting to know more about Max, and bonding with him over Max’s stories of love and loss, you can feel him start to admire Max, even if he isn’t sure if any of the things Max is saying are even close to the truth. Manganiello brings Max Fist to life in ways rarely seen, both in voice-over and in his interaction with the other cast members. There is vulnerability underneath the tough exterior that is rarely tapped into with similar types of work. The audience gets to spend time with Max, and not all of it is good, as you see a man on a quest, but also a man constantly abusing his body. The final scene where Max is confronted with the truth of his actions in the past is one of the most powerful scenes in recent cinema.
The largest strength in Archenemy is that each character deals with trauma and reconciliation of where that has led them. It is powerful, and it pushes this beyond the realm of just being a great film, into something truly special. The special effects and impressive style of the film help guide it but in the end, this is a film about lost people trying to find themselves, and recover. It’s a story about attempting to find betterment. It’s a story about not letting the past define who you are.
Archenemy arrives in theaters and on VOD/Digital December 11th from RLJE Films.
By Justin Drabek