A Christmas movie for modern America, one that encompasses all our fears, anxieties and darkest desires.
There’s no shortage of schmaltzy holiday family films on streaming platforms like Netflix, but so many of those movies are copy-and-paste affairs. They’re fewer actual movies and more crude assemblages of yuletide tropes stitched end-to-end with smiling white faces and milquetoast covers of carols. But 2017’s Pottersville is something special. It’s a Christmas movie for modern America, one that encompasses all our fears, anxieties and darkest desires.
Imagine every Hallmark Xmas flick ever, only made by absolute madmen. It’s a uniquely strange bent on an otherwise straightforward comedy. Pottersville revolves around a fictional town full of largely decent people all struggling financially since the closing of the mill. Michael Shannon stars as Maynard, a general store owner who is presented as a relatable everyman. On the page, that’s absolutely how the character is written. It’s a character written for, like, Josh Radnor, but he’s played by Michael Shannon! Maynard is supposed to be this sullen, bland nice guy who’s just trying his best, but Shannon has entirely too much presence, so everything that befalls him has a weird amount of dramatic weight.
One day, Maynard is told by the town’s local wildman Bart (Ian McShane) that he should let a little more excitement into his life. Bart gifts Maynard a bottle of liquor, for the eventual day when he decides to let loose. That day, Maynard goes home to find his wife, Connie (Christina Hendricks), in bed with the sheriff, Jack (Ron Perlman). Now, in a regular movie, Maynard would just catch his wife fucking another guy. But this isn’t a regular movie. It’s Pottersville. He walks in to discover his wife and the sheriff are furries. It’s an astonishing scene, both horrifying and hilarious, as the audience must watch Shannon pretend to be a normal guy processing some very abnormal trauma.
Maynard’s world now shattered, he decides to dive into that bottle of liquor and cry his sorrows to Parker (Judy Greer), the sweet girl next door who works at his shop. She leaves him alone to stew in his feelings, but the rest of his night goes off the rails. He winds up in a Bigfoot costume inflicting random carnage on the town. But cell phone footage gets out and people think they’ve really found Bigfoot, turning their dull, failing town into a tourist boom site. Maynard is distressed about his personal life but glad to see his neighbors prosper as the result of his drunken buffoonery, so he keeps donning the suit to keep the magic alive.
It’s briefly a charming little tale about a guy turning his own pain into good tidings for his fellow townsfolk, until Brock Masterson (Thomas Lennon) shows up. He’s a TV monster-hunter hell-bent on actually catching Bigfoot. Between him, his camera crew, the sheriff and wildman Bart all wanting a piece of the alleged beast, Maynard must choose between maintaining a lie to keep the town flush with attention and revenue or being honest and destroying a lot of goodwill. But the film isn’t really about that.
It’s really about small-town America and the secrets we keep from each other. Brock isn’t really an Australian adventurer. He’s a whiny actor hoping this dumb show will be a stepping-stone to future fame. Sheriff Jack acts the typical tough guy, but deep down he just wants to be inside the comfort of his plush wolf costume. Okay, really Pottersville isn’t about anything. It’s just an insane mess of a film peppered with enough genuine moments of humor and sweetness to coalesce into an above average viewing experience.
But it is nonetheless a unique piece of filmcraft. This is a made-for-TV budget stretched to look like Jean-Pierre Jeunet slumming it for Lifetime. (Seriously, someone give cinematographer Damian Horan a real job.) The film looks beautiful and has so many pleasant moments, it’s a wonder it actually exists. Because every other disparate piece of the plot and premise is so absurd, the film just shouldn’t have ever been made. This is a movie you want to applaud merely for making it out of a studio-apartment spitball session between stoned screenwriters egging each other on to add the least family-friendly details to an otherwise wholesome Christmas film.
By the time we get to the Capraesque conclusion, we’re left wondering whether or not this is anything more than a feature-length video essay kink-shaming people who want to fuck in bunny costumes, but somehow it still rings true as a genuine holiday story for what’s left of modern society. Don’t see Pottersville—experience it.