Uncomfortably gross and darkly humorous, Joel Potrykus’s oddball indie flick is bursting with chaotic energy. Relaxer takes place in one room with only a handful of characters – namely Abbie (Joshua Burge), a meek and scrawny video-game player tormented by his brother Cam (David Dastmalchian). When Cam challenges him to beat the world record level of Pac-Man, Abbie is subject to varying levels of torment, all designed to make him lose.
Drinking spoiled milk, freezing shirtless to death and starving to the point he eats a leather shoe (potentially a reference to Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, 1925) are just some of the things our protagonist is made to endure. Or is he? Abbie’s passive disposition makes him an anti-hero we want to root for, but can’t help be disgusted by. After all, he is the one who agrees to sit on the sofa, never moving, until reaching level 256. Relaxer achieves a strange mix of discomfort and curiosity; the concept is bizarre and our characters have unclear motives, yet there’s a familiarity attached to the retro 90s setting that keeps us engaged.
A film about a man playing Pac-Man, with only one location and the same few camera angles, screams boredom. We never even venture into the kitchen (side characters only faintly visible from the shoulders down when they’re in there) and the outside world is unknown to us. We, like Abbie, are stuck in this one space, never-ending, shackled to the screen.
Nonetheless, Relaxer remains mind-bendingly immersive. The sense of claustrophobia Potrykus creates emphasizes the films warning against screen addiction. Not only does the 90s backdrop add a cultish, low-budget indie feel to the film, but also highlights Potrykus’s message about our modern obsession with technology (the 90s witnessing a boom in video-game culture).
Relaxer’s roots in surrealism (inspired by Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, 1962) is obvious through its warped depiction of reality. At some point Abbie believes he has telekinetic abilities, and the grungy surroundings present a debased version of recognisable modern living. We rarely see Abbie’s television screen, because the game isn’t important – Abbie’s state is, acting as a hyperbolic reflection of ourselves. Think ‘Sloth’ victim in David Fincher’s Se7en (1995).
Almost as if we are placed in another dimension, the outside world of Relaxer is vaguely referenced, whereas the apartment is crudely detailed, alienating both Abbie and the audience from reality. Relaxer is a clever and witty black comedy that could easily gather a cult following. The make-up effects are brilliant, and performances fairly impressive considering Abbie can’t even stand up. Potrykus produces a fun-filled ride that’s as eccentric as it is shameless. It definitely won’t be to everyone’s taste, but if you’re ever looking to something a little different, Relaxer is worth checking out.
Relaxer (Limited Edition) is available to order here.