An utterly bizarre, frequently grotesque, occasionally obscene singularity, Polish artist Mariusz Wilczynski’s abrasive animation “Kill It and Leave This Town” exists so far outside the realm of the expected, the acceptable and the neatly comprehensible that it acts as a striking reminder of just how narrow that realm can be. Occupying a conceptual space several universes away from (or perhaps, given its intensely personal nature, deeply nested inside whatever it is we recognize as) “reality,” the scratchy, hand-drawn interior epic is alarmingly niche in appeal, but if you can slip into that tiny schism, it certainly rewards with one of the most nightmarishly original dystopian visions you are likely to encounter this year.
Willfully lo-fi, rendered in often crude black and white lines and smudges occasionally accented with tiny spots of color — a pilot light, a row of cigarette packs, a fizzing neon sign in the shape of a ram — the film is noted animator Wilczyński’s first feature, but has been in the works for 11 years, which maybe accounts for why its 88 minutes play out like a decade-long anxiety attack. Within it, memory abuts dream, which in turn jostles against long tracts of defiantly self-indulgent navel-gazing that play as a kind of therapeutic exercise for an author experiencing an ontological crisis. So if a linear narrative is impossible to discern among such densely surreal imagery, the mood of circular despair, self-recrimination and intense melancholy is just as impossible to miss.
Loosely speaking, it is set in Wilczynski’s childhood home of Lodz, in the 1970s, when a browbeaten Poland was still firmly in the clutches of the communist regime. The city backdrops are rendered in unusual detail, with plumes of smoke puffing from the industrial skyline, which has the eloquent effect of oppressing the more crudely-drawn human characters that populate it. These people — officious shopkeepers, unhelpful station-masters, truant schoolboys — all seem alienated from one another even as we swim in and out of their nervily chattering, nonsensical monologues.
Bobbing fish in a tank turn into decapitated heads that roll across trainyards and rasp incomprehensible, vaguely satanic-sounding messages to the living. An ancient sailor with a medal and a beak for a mouth bickers with his wife on a train ride. A man and his son go to the beach for the day and forget to telephone home where mother becomes increasingly frantic. And Wilczynski himself appears, a lumbering Brobdingnagian giant in this Lilliputian world (it’s as unflattering a self-portrait as you can imagine) while he waits at his dying mother’s bedside — later, we will watch in ghastly close-up as the mortician chats offhandedly while sewing up the genitalia on her shriveled corpse.
The film does not feel directly political, yet the style still recalls the politicized caricatures of George Grosz or the ghouls of Otto Dix meeting the surreal grotesqueries of Jan Svankmajer or Jiri Barta, minus the aesthetic intricacy. The transitions between disparate scenes are haphazard, sometimes simply fading in and out of black, sometimes eliding into each other as in a dream, and sometimes cutting on a sound element (old Polish pop music dots the soundtrack) or the wail of an electric guitar riff from Tadeusz Nalepa’s twanging score. The varying strokes and weights of the individual animators’ styles further challenge the film’s flow, with characters rendered so differently from one scene to the next it’s surprising that we can still ascribe them any object permanence at all. But despite the jarring form, “Kill It and Leave This Town” is still oddly immersive: a peculiarly vivid, monochromatically psychotropic bad trip.
These are Wilczynski’s memories but also his nightmares, fears and neuroses made manifest in ink on paper backgrounds. Sometimes that paper is lined and ragged, stuck together with visibly yellowing tape that testifies to both the spontaneous, even hasty, nature of the images, but also to their ancientness, like marginalia doodles discovered in an old school copybook. And the naiveté of the presentation is clamorously dissonant with the artistic ambition, which is little less than the tortured representation of an already unruly psyche gathering together fragmentary impressions churned up in the wake of the specific type of existential grief that occurs when orphanhood happens to an adult.
“I simply don’t believe in death,” says Wilczynski’s bloated, scraggly avatar at one point. “Everyone who is gone is just gone. They didn’t die, they are alive in my imagination.” That might well be the kind of cozy blandishment we’d expect of a much easier, more lighthearted film about death, one designed to comfort rather than provoke. But here it is anything but a consolation. The imagination that “Kill It and Leave This Town” illustrates may indeed be a sort of afterlife for people of Wilczynski’s past, but if so, it is Purgatory.