More than once in "Tower," the discomfiting first feature from Canadian writer-director Kazik Radwanski, 34-year-old loner Derek — memorably played by newcomer Derek Bogart — issues a dubious refrain: "I don't want you to think I'm some sort of weirdo," he says. Of course, that's all anyone thinks of this squinty-eyed, cartoonishly bald and finicky bachelor as he juggles odd jobs while living with his parents. Getting uncomfortably intimate with Derek from the first scene of "Tower" until its last, Radwanski dares the audience to feel differently about him. It's no easy task.
Throughout the movie, Derek wears a distinctive frozen expression, his eyes locked in a distant gaze. Early on, after making the rounds at a nightclub and chasing a few women home, he awakes the next morning with a nasty red wound between his eyes. Never hidden from view, the injury is one of many merciless forces that turn Derek into an unseemly figure. Aided by cinematographers Daniel Voshart and Richard Williamson, Radwanski consistently frames his antihero in extreme close-up as he wanders through an empty life in which everyone fails to get a rise out of him.
A struggling animator whose greatest success is 13 seconds of a ridiculous animated short film that took him two months to complete, Derek wanders through a part-time construction job while evading advice from his helpless parents (John Scholl and Deborah Sawyer). These characters are never given names, possibly because they're so irrelevant to Derek as he continues to brush aside their efforts with eternal ambivalence. For no apparent reason other than boredom and desperation, he falls into an ill-fated relationship with an affable woman named Nicole (Nicole Fairbairn), who mistakes his alienating behavior for a kind of serene innocence.
Derek is certainly a tantalizing enigma, not only to the audience and the characters populating the movie but to himself as well. While "Tower" continually frustrates in its brash avoidance of a story to sustain its fascinating creation, Radwanski has an incredible eye for deepening his protagonist through images alone. Derek regularly stares down his reflection with palpable dread, rendering in physical terms what other screenwriters might attempt through dialogue. Whether contemplating his invasive wisdom teeth or desperately attempting to bury his facial injury with makeup in a moment both cringe-inducing and deeply funny, Derek struggles through his world with symbolic moments that reflect his urgent need to pull things together.
However, even as "Tower" grows increasingly frantic, there's not quite enough activity here to sustain a feature. Outside of an irreverent breakup scene that turns unexpectedly touching, at just under 80 minutes, it hardly pushes the uneasiness any further than the bare outline of a plot can carry it.
The closest recent point of comparison for "Tower" is Ronald Bronstein's "Frownland," which also followed a perpetually antsy and confused character with relentless detail. But in that case, the movie eventually opened up to chart a path of character development that "Tower" lacks. Radwanski never extends beyond Derek's claustrophobic headspace.
Early discussion of the movie's central figure has included comparisons to "Taxi Driver" eccentric Travis Bickle. But "Tower" lacks the earlier movie's explosive payoff, which featured a heroic act that may or may not have taken place. By contrast, Radwanski concludes with a defiant anticlimax that finds Derek facing down a raccoon in his backyard. The encounter provides a decent metaphor for the feeling of confinement Derek perpetually experiences. Nevertheless, by then, "Tower" has already made its point many unsettling times over.
Criticwire grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Having premiered at the Locarno Film Festival this week, "Tower" will return to its native land with a North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival next month. It should generate solid buzz at festivals but doesn't seem likely to gain much traction anywhere but ancillary markets. Nevertheless, it may help pave the way for the writer-director's future (and potentially more ambitious) work.