Sam Elliott’s long overdue first Oscar nomination, arriving at last for his turn in A Star Is Born, has thrust the grizzled screen vet into the spotlight like never before. But if you loved him in that movie, The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then Bigfoot is truly a cannot-miss affair. It’s 98 minutes of Elliott acting his ass off within the scaffolding of one of the most bizarre and unexpectedly touching screen stories you’ll see on the big screen this season.
My fear is that audiences will be deterred by the movie’s long, strange title, which is unique and awesome but doesn’t signal just how poignant the story is at its heart. Elliott plays Calvin Barr, a World War II veteran in his twilight years who leads a quaint, small town life with his golden retriever and is haunted by vivid memories of assassinating Hitler (a strapping Aidan Turner plays young Calvin in flashbacks). Mundane, everyday acts like shaving his face, getting a haircut, and staring at an old storefront bring memories of his past life rushing back, slowly piecing together for us, the audience, a more complete picture of a man who’s had everything stripped from him for the sake of being a dutiful soldier.
Calvin is snapped out of his disillusioned loop of PTSD depression by a determined FBI agent (Ron Livingston) who asks him to serve his country one more time, by killing the deadly virus-carrying Bigfoot that’s been rampaging across Canada, thereby saving the world. A dime-a-dozen plot this is not, but I can tell you I was shocked at how organically and beautifully this bonkers turn of events ultimately serves the core story, which is all about Calvin’s inner struggle to move past everything he’s done and everything he’s lost.
At this stage of his life and career, Elliott has become the perfect onscreen vessel for moody character studies (as director Brett Haley demonstrates in the stunning I’ll See You in My Dreams and The Hero, both starring Elliott). The Man Who Killed Hitler is yet another perfect showcase for the mustachioed man’s man, and first-time writer-director Robert D. Krzykowski understands that to let Elliott truly shine, you’ve got to capture all of his signature idiosyncrasies, all of the little nooks and crannies of his performance. Every raise of an eyebrow, every slump in posture, every piercing glare, every nigh inaudible gravelly grumble speaks volumes about his character’s state of mind, and Krzykowski has written a script that’s simple enough to let the nuance of Elliott’s performance breathe and lead the story.
Right out of the gate, Krzykowski seems to have a knack for putting together sound and imagery that grabs you by the collar and demands your attention. The first flashback, which sees young Calvin infiltrating the Third Reich under the guise of a Nazi officer, going through a security check moments before his fateful meeting with Hitler, is done incredibly well, with the pounding orchestra score punctuated by the clanking of Calvin’s metal equipment on the security officer’s desk. The camera cuts are fast and punchy, the sound design is muscly and in-your-face, and while most films that explore this time period do so with a bowed head and a measure of solemnity, Krzykowski isn’t afraid to make a stylistic statement within the historical milieu.
The way the flashbacks are weaved into the main storyline is a bit messy. When Calvin drifts off and we learn a bit more about his past, it’s not readily apparent how this new information directly affects what’s going on in his life now, and while Elliott is truly captivating, I often found myself distracted from his performance because I was contemplating the emotional relevance of the flashback I’d just seen. Perhaps the connections between past and present are there and I was just having trouble identifying them, but it was harder to connect the dots than I would have liked. Typically, when flashbacks are done right, they lend a narrative forward thrust and momentum that can be truly powerful. But here, the pacing feels a little flat throughout. If Elliott weren’t so gosh darn mesmerizing (at one point, he literally stares blankly at wallpaper and it almost brought a tear to my eye. Really.) I imagine the movie would feel a lot longer than it actually is.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the movie (including the whole Bigfoot thing) is Turner, who should be overshadowed by Elliott but absolutely isn’t. He isn’t quite on his senior counterpart’s level skill-wise, but he’s nonetheless a delight to watch, especially in the flashbacks revolving around Calvin’s blossoming romance with a ravishing school teacher named Maxine (Caitlin FitzGerald). There’s a lovely moment that sees a romantic dinner interrupted by the parents of one of Maxine’s students, and Turner’s nervous squirming and catches in his voice are adorably endearing and sell the gravity of the relationship perfectly.
The latter half of the movie, centered on Calvin’s solo mission to kill Bigfoot, is totally crazy and fantastical and heartbreaking, and it’s best I don’t spoil any of the gory details here. But what I will say is that it mirrors the emotion of the Hitler storyline brilliantly, and the absurdity of the scenario melts away completely because it makes sense within the context of Calvin’s internal odyssey. If you go into The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then Bigfoot hungry for a wacky movie in which Sam Elliott kicks copious amounts of ass, you’ll get your money’s worth. But Krzykowski makes sure you leave with a little something to take home, too, weaving a tall tale that’s as contemplative and life-affirming as it is completely insane.