Empathy and compassion in cinema are qualities that are at once easily felt and difficult to quantify, which poses a problem for film criticism. How can one say whether a film judges its characters and be sure that it’s not the viewer who’s the one passing judgement – i.e. succumbing to that exact same moralising impulse? More often than not, the claims of a film and/or its author loving or hating their characters implies that there’s a neat dramaturgical and formal recipe for humanism or misanthropy, rather than the acknowledgement that both qualities come in many different guises.
Kazik Radwanski’s two features to date – 2012’s Tower and now How Heavy This Hammer – are svelte, threadbare character studies that serve as case studies for the above quandaries. Each film is energised by intriguing contradictions; they both focus claustrophobically on the kind of passive, lethargic, ‘unlikeable’ lead character that screenwriting manuals would tell you to steer away from; in Hammer it’s Erwin (Erwin Van Cottheim), a middle-aged family man who’s first seen avoiding his wife and two sons in favour of a simple-looking online strategy game, and who only becomes less responsive from there. On the other hand, Radwanski’s gaze is never less than alert, even kinetic; scavenging for telling micro-details in the faces and gestures of his subjects. And despite the resulting claustrophobia (the handheld camera almost never diverts from filming faces in tight close-ups), rarely does this visual strategy threaten to transform the world around these human subjects into an abstraction.
Hammer, in particular, is so profoundly and thoroughly Canadian that I initially had assumed Erwin’s accent (actually Flemish) had to be some kind of regional lilt I hadn’t heard before. A lovely scene that observes him on a rooftop pointing out the streets and landmarks below to his two sons gets at the heart of the film’s central dynamic, which involves a keen feel for a Toronto working-class milieu and a specificity of location, combined with a formal approach that hems close to the subjectivity of someone who often seems to yearn for nothing more than to block out the world around him.
Like Tower’s Derek, Erwin is fixated on animated graphics displayed on a screen, and it’s the synthetic imagery that seems as much of a balm for both characters as what these animations represent in their respective mediums. For Derek, it was a work-in-progress film project, though for Erwin, the game’s images become a textural element rather than a metaphor for his stasis (as was the case with Derek), as the expanse of the game’s pastoral imagery is often his (and our) only respite from the urban Toronto locations that form the backdrop of his stifling everyday routine.
It’s difficult to imagine the film without Van Cottheim, who’s a physiognomic marvel, with sad, kind eyes that transparently project the inner life necessary for such an otherwise inscrutable character to come alive. This is quite different from saying the film wouldn’t ‘work’ without him; he’s the kind of non-actor that only a filmmaker with genuine curiosity in people could structure an entire fictional feature around. Like a number of contemporary filmmakers of note – Amiel Courtin-Wilson, Nicolas Pereda, Sean Baker, Nathan Silver, Matías Piñeiro, to name a few – Radwanski makes films in which the boundaries between performer and actor are deliberately tenuous, and in which the fiction grows organically from the collaboration between director and performer.
So, does How Heavy This Hammer ‘judge’ Erwin for his (in)actions? The somewhat grandiose title, combined with the contrapuntal classical music cue that bookends the film, could indeed be interpreted as a sly joke at Erwin’s expense – certainly, if those kinds of ironies were all the film had to offer, it might easily be worthless. Yet Radwanski’s depiction of Erwin’s ordinariness is so concentrated and intense to the point that we’re led to see nothing but ourselves in his predicament. And that is as close to a concrete definition of empathetic filmmaking that I can offer.