Toronto
4 min

Prairie gothic

Terrible things are happening under big, clear skies

SUNNY & SURREAL. The Nature Of Nicholas is the feature debut of Winnipeg writer/director Jeffrey Erbach. Credit: Sheila Spence

Unless you’ve been hiding under a gay rock, you know it’s Inside Out season – and that one of the most anticipated screenings of this festival edition is Winnipeg-based filmmaker Jeffrey Erbach’s first feature, The Nature Of Nicholas.

Watching the film is an intensely pleasurable experience. And besides the fact that it’s a really good story, stunningly beautiful (kudos to cinematographer Brian Rougeau and production designer Leanne Foley), well- acted and full of thrillingly bizarre ideas and images (zombies, a vaguely insane mother, a ghost who speaks through the living by hacking into their spinal columns with medical instruments), it’s exciting because it’s not your straightforward you-know-how-it’ll-end-the-minute-the-opening-credits-roll movie.

This is a film that you actually have to watch.

“It’s an obtuse film,” Erbach says. “And I’m more than proud of the fact that the film is somewhat evocative and requires people to talk about it after they’ve seen it because so few films are like that. You watch them, you enjoy them, you leave. If you watch the three-minute trailer, you get the film and there’s no need to go further than that.”

The Nature Of Nicholas doesn’t work that way. Slow pacing and static shots, so different from the restlessness of MTV blockbuster editing, create a steady build – for the first 20 minutes, you scramble to sort out what’s going on, then minute by minute the pieces fall into place. You know where you’ve been, you know how you got here – but you never know where you’re headed next. It’s a thrilling – and, finally, devastating – experience.

The film’s overall feel is one of foreboding – we feel as though evil is always lurking – and this discomfort is carried as much by the stark, static visuals as it is by the interaction of the performers. Lines are delivered with a weighty precision that verges on artificial, a technique that suggests a disconnect between the characters – and one that at once places the audience at a distance from the characters, while drawing us into the film’s world.

None of the children in the film had ever appeared on film before. In fact, the boys who are at the film’s centre (Jeff Sutton as Nicholas and David Turnbull as his best friend Bobby) had never acted at all. These are the performances that carry the film- a hell of an accomplishment, for the boys and for Erbach.

On top of that, Ardith Boxall’s unsettling performance as Nicholas’s gentle and yet somehow terribly threatening mother and Tom McCamus’s turn as the creepy yet loving dead father that only Nicholas can see make the atmosphere all the more brilliantly dreadful.

Why choose this sort of structure for the film? “I find that I have an appreciation of visual art that I find I don’t have for most filmmaking,” says Erbach. “I find movies to be too talkative; there’s too much blabbing going on. Film is a visual medium and should be used as a visual medium.” Erbach’s preference is for contemplative moments between characters, instead of the heavy drama of overcoming obstacles; for elements that reflect ideas, not just a storyline.

But Erbach is no Ingmar Bergman. Sure, there are those wrenching, silent moments that speak volumes, but his particular – and singular – strength has more to do with his use of indescribable and yet sublime metaphor.

Erbach, who’s made several short films over the last decade, is cautious about linking his various works. “I’m always a little skeptical about filmmakers or artists who are able to decipher all the metaphors in all their work. I think it’s too self-conscious.”

Still, it’s hard not to acknowledge the recurrence of moods and imagery throughout the body of his work.

Images often recall the complex metaphors of surrealist film – shots of bloody chunks of meat pepper Under Chad Valley (1998); a tense hand and forearm stand in for an erect penis in Monday With The Martins (from 2000) – and Erbach acknowledges he does “borrow lightly from surrealist philosophy,” making gentle use of automatic writing, though he stops short of classifying himself a surrealist.

Imagery aside, most apparent in Erbach’s work is that his narratives often revolve around children. And these are not charming, coming-of-age stories; they are more akin to horrific fairy tales. Erbach’s children do not lose their innocence, it is brutally wrested away from them.

Why children? “Every time I sit down and come up with an idea,” says Erbach, “it seems to revolve around a certain period, which is usually under the age of 16. That’s where you get hardwired, and where your body naturally mutates into this other, larger creature. I’ve tried to come up with ideas that don’t involve children, and I find they just bore me. I guess I feel the characters are so mature that they know themselves so intimately that there might not be a journey there.”

In Nicholas, this journey toward the destruction of innocence plays itself out in murderous fashion. The film’s children hurtle toward adulthood, making choices along the way about the kind of adults they want to become. The jettisoned, discarded elements manifest themselves as zombies that are left to rot.

The zombie at the centre of The Nature Of Nicholas appears soon after Nicholas, the protagonist, kisses his best friend – we cannot help but surmise that this friend has rejected his possible queer future. Yet it’s not that simple. “The central idea is that these boys and girls are at a certain age when they’re dealing with their sexuality, and that’s it. And we take a really tenuous approach to stipulating that sexual identity is categorically at one or another end of the spectrum. It falls somewhere in the middle.”

This fact, Erbach suggests, has presented some difficulty in having the film programmed at queer film festivals. “It’s not necessarily a film about coming out, or about having a gay central character, even that isn’t necessarily true.” Apart from the brief kiss, there is no overt queerness on screen (mind you, Nicholas does allow the zombie to sleep in his room with him, rotting flesh and all).

And (I may regret this later) I’m guessing that Erbach himself isn’t all that high on the Kinsey scale, though, if you’re counting, local homo Len Pendergast is one of the film’s producers (his feature debut, too).

But despite the film’s universal appeal – we have all left our zombies out in the cold to die – it may well resonate in a unique way with queer audiences, whose consciousness about the choosing and rejecting of possible sexualities is perhaps more acute than others.

“I was really hoping to make something that would require a viewing,” says Erbach, “because it would be a visual piece. It’s difficult to capture in words something that is visual.”

There is little doubt that he has succeeded. If you do nothing else, see this film.

* A regular film writer for Xtra, Nicholas Davies is on Inside Out’s programming committee.

* The Nature Of Nicholas screens at 7:15pm on Sun, May 18 at the Cumberland
1; director Jeffrey Erbach will attend the sold-out screening.