Mary Angela Rowe reviews one of the best films of the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival from Canadian director Kazik Radwanski. To discover more great Canadian Cinema, take the Canadian Cinema Challenge and get a copy of our ebook on Canadian film, The 2019 Canadian Cinema Yearbook here.
Canadian director Kazik Radwanski’s sophomore feature How Heavy This Hammer is a sympathetic yet unsentimental portrait of contemporary masculinity in crisis. Protagonist Erwin (Erwin Van Cotthem) is a middle-aged family man living in Toronto who spends most of his time sleeping through his own life, engaging only in rugby and online gaming. Radwanski’s focused framing and unhurried script give us time to explore Erwin from his own perspective and to empathize with the emptiness and futility he feels.
The film’s framing effectively mirrors its protagonist’s isolation. How Heavy This Hammer is shot entirely in tight close-ups, usually with only one person in the frame at a time; there’s not a single wide shot in the film. The camera switches between characters as if switching between perspectives. There’s little connection between these people even when they inhabit the same space.
Erwin finds reality a burden and the needs of others a chore. He becomes quickly frustrated any time he has to engage with the real world — whether it’s finding his son’s boots at school, taking care of his health, or being awoken from a nap to watch a movie with his family. Erwin’s name echoes again and again during the first twenty minutes of the film, mostly from the voice of his wife calling him to deal with their family. The other characters take a while to be named. Some are not identified at all, which reflects the way they figure in Erwin’s own internal narrative: not as connections, but as peripheral figures to the void he feels.
Rather than face a world of (entirely legitimate) demands and expectations, Erwin subsumes himself in every distracting experience available to him — beer, food, rugby, and most of all, online gaming. Radwanski presents these distractions as all of a piece, but it’s in online gaming that Erwin’s hopeless nihilism finds its purest expression. “Ready for destruction? Ready for war?” Erwin asks his two young sons, pushing them to play against him in his online game. Calm down, guy: You’re watching poorly-rendered monsters repeat movements on screen.
This game and his rugby team are Erwin’s only opportunities to feel masculine and powerful, in contrast to the buzz of banal frustration that is his everyday life. When Erwin puts on his glasses and begins to play his online game, an aria swells. As an opera fan, I’m irritated by its overuse in movie scores, but here it’s reasonably effective, blotting out the sounds of the world and invoking a sense of peace.
Erwin craves companionship, but only when it’s convenient. When Erwin takes his kids somewhere to admire the view, and we think it’s some kind of mountain or park, but no — it’s the top of a three-storey at Bloor and Lansdowne. The building houses a room that he’s renovating for a pub owner in exchange for a place to crash, away from the nagging of his wife who seems mostly concerned that he sleep in his bed and go to the doctor occasionally. Erwin only spends time with his sons doing things that he enjoys — rugby, home repair, online gaming — and seems oblivious to their boredom, delighted when he beats his maybe 10-year-old sons at a game. The instant they impose on his preferences, he withdraws.
This thoughtful and clear-eyed film does have a few issues. The film’s deliberate pace drags at times, and its muted colour palette doesn’t help. Some scenes are repetitive and don’t advance the story. These minor flaws don’t seriously detract from an otherwise well-made film. Mostly, How Heavy This Hammer benefits from its measured tempo and show-don’t-tell approach to character development.
Because Radwanski so effectively cultivates sympathy for his protagonist, How Heavy This Hammer is almost painful to watch at times. In some ways, it’s reminiscent of Nick Hornby’s portrayal of middle age as a bleak, meaningless wasteland in How To Be Good. Unlike Hornby’s novel, How Heavy This Hammer is just sad, never depressing. Erwin goes on a journey, but it’s not one of self-discovery. He seems frustrated with himself but unwilling or unable to change. “We’re fine, I’m fine, all is fine,” Erwin snaps in exasperation at his wife’s concern. The end of the film brings us right back to where we started: glasses on, in front of a computer screen.
How Heavy This Hammer screens Sun. Sept. 13 at 10 p.m. at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2 and Tues. Sept. 15 at 5 p.m. at TIFF Bell Lightbox 4. For tickets and details, visit the TIFF website here.