The Arbalest (2016) by Adam Pinney
Review by Andrew Swafford
Being a film fan who tries to keep up with contemporary criticism and festival awards can have its disadvantages. Sometimes you spend a lot of time watching movies you otherwise would have no interest in. This can be a positive thing, because it helps you break out of your own self-serving sense of taste—but it can also lead to a lot of wasted time watching stuff you flat out dislike. Worse than this, however, is the unspoken sense of pressure to praise films you don’t think are any good, just because of the names and prestige attached to them.
Let’s run down the list of reasons why I feel like I SHOULD like The Arbalest: (1) it won the biggest prize possible at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival; (2) serving on the jury for this festival competition were Richard Brody of The New Yorker and Alfonso Duralde of What the Flick! and the Linoleum Knife podcast (the latter being one of my most trusted film critics); (3) the director has been compared to the likes of both Wes Anderson and Stanley Kubrick (two directors I really enjoy and who certainly have a lot of status attached to their names); and (4) the film was chosen for screening by Darren Hughes and Paul Harrill of The Public Cinema, Knoxville’s cinematic miracle workers who have brought our fair city the likes of Tangerine, Mountains May Depart, Heart of a Dog (my review was pretty glowing), Taxi, Field Niggas, Dusty Stacks of Mom, The Forbidden Room, Hitchcock/Truffaut, No Home Movie, etc. FOR FREE. Hughes and Harrill also have relationships with members of Cinematary on a personal level and at least one of them listens to the show on a regular basis. I admire both men greatly, and it’s wonderful that they were able to nab us a screening of such a hot film that ended up being the third-ever screening of all time anywhere.
However, as one of only a handful of people who has SEEN this headline-grabbing title, I have to live my truth here—The Arbalest is a load of hooey. It’s trying to play as a dark comedy about an unsympathetic/reprehensible moron who doesn’t know when to quit, but the character himself has no charisma or interesting traits, the lead performance is laughable, and the script is not. Let’s get into it.
The Arbalest follows a man named Foster Kalt (played by Mike Brune) who has arrived at a toy convention in the 1960s to pitch an invention that no child will ever care for (a switch that inflates balloons). In a stroke of bizarre coincidence, however, he ends up spending the evening in a hotel room with the as-yet-undiscovered inventor of the Rubik’s Cube and this man’s female inventing partner, Sylvia Frank (Tallie Medel). They start drinking and taking ridiculous amounts of pills, and two crucial events occur: (1) Foster Kalt falls madly in love with Sylvia, and begins operating under the delusion that she shares his feelings, and (2) the Rubik’s Cube inventor overdoses and dies, leaving the invention for Kalt to take credit for and to share the royalties with Sylvia (living separately, of course), ensuring them both the luxury of lifelong financial freedom.
It’s a damn interesting premise for a movie, admittedly—and the establishing scenes that take place in the mod posh 60s hotel room are certainly exciting and amusing. However, the whole thing spins out of control from there, veering nonsensically to and fro (and I do mean nonsensically) between periods of Foster’s life as he indulges in the hedonistic pleasures that are afforded to his great fortune and success, wallows in self-pity and undeserved grief for the relationship he never actually had with Sylvia, and becomes a J.D.-Salinger-level recluse who everyone wants to get the untold story on. All of these events, however, center around that singular unrequited relationship between Foster and Sylvia—it’s the kind of middle-school style relationship in which one person gets hung up on the other for seemingly no reason whatsoever and just dwells on it for years and years, being consumed from the inside out by absurd delusions of male entitlement (He’s a nice guy, goddammit! Why isn’t she falling over herself for him?!). Foster takes it to the next level, however, and becomes a legitimately abusive stalker, wreaking havoc on every aspect of Sylvia’s personal life. Writer/director Adam Pinney wants us as an audience to either (A) actually root for this creep—which I find unlikely, or (B) think this is all very funny—which is turns out to not be.
It absolutely could be funny, however. I am in no way saying that it’s impossible to make a movie about an awful, awful character that manages to be compelling and humorous and even maybe a little bit sympathetic to the character. Two huge names jump to mind—Mary Harron’s cult-classic American Psycho and Dan Gilroy’s stunning directorial debut Nightcrawler. Even many of Wes Anderson’s films fit the bill as charming narratives about unsympathetic and selfish jerks (The Life Aquatic and Fantastic Mr. Fox seem like prime examples of this).
However, it just doesn’t work here, which I think is partially the fault of a script that gives us no way to understand or be interested in the story of Foster Kalt. I think this would be possible—maybe Adam Pinney could have added scenes that emphasized how fame and fortune (largely ignored) gave Foster an over-inflated ego which combined with his already overactive sense of privilege to make us get inside the head of this character. Instead, he gives us no narrative through-line due to on over-abundance pointless flashbacks and flash-forwards that ignore the meat of the story. Maybe it’s all on purpose, and Pinney is trying to paint people like Foster as just plain bad (which I could get behind, I guess), but at the end of the day this is a comedy with almost no laughs. If there’s no character development and no laughter, what is there?
One thing left is acting, and a bigger part of the reason that the comedy and the pathos both don’t work here is the acting from Mike Brune, who plays Foster Kalt. His performance is way too over-the-top to be in any way believable, either in real life and even the world of the film—everyone else is playing the straight man, while Brune’s mannerisms for the last half of the film are just awkward and strange. There’s a lot of minutia regarding gesticulation that factors into this, but what I absolutely couldn’t get over were his facial expressions when he would speak to Sylvia, which consist of a much-too-intense stare (think the Mexican restaurant scene in Nightcrawler) and randomly puckered lips that feel directly lifted from Office Space’s infuriating supervisor Bill Lumberg (played wonderfully by Gary Cole). The character of Foster Kalt is given a performance that just feels too farcical for his own story, which frames him as a horrible villain. A character like this needs to either be funny and entertaining (this is trying too hard), or the audience needs to love to hate them. I didn’t love to hate Foster Kalt, as I loved to hate Nightcrawler’s Lou Bloom—I just hated him.