If you grew up anywhere close to a heavily forested area, you’ve probably heard a story similar to the one that’s told in Joel Potrykus‘ The Alchemist Cookbook. A young, troubled man spurns society and goes to live in a small shack in the woods, where he takes up amateur alchemy in the hopes of being able to create gold for himself. Most of the time, this kind of story came to you secondhand from a friend who was talking about his cousin’s college roommate, but by the time you heard it, it had of course taken on the timbre of recreational myth. There was a certain distance from the tale that made you feel halfway disconnected from the psychological bedlam that would cause someone to take such an action, but Potrykus is not interested in affording anyone that buffer. With The Alchemist Cookbook, he has not only crafted a deeply unsettling, wildly creative, and weirdly funny psychological horror-melodrama but also made his best film to date by a country mile.
Potrykus has said that he created The Alchemist Cookbook as an experiment to see if he could make people empathize with someone who is clearly losing their mind and cannot be helped. The someone, in this case, is Sean (Ty Hickson), a young nerd who lives, sleeps, and eats in a shanty in the woods that’s smaller than most walk-in closets. His days are made up of cooking up myriad chemical compounds and metals in this small space, listening to rap and metal, stuffing Doritos in his mouth, and taking his all-important pills with a big glug of soda. Indeed, like the anti-hero of Buzzard, Potrykus’ impressive, unnerving sophomore feature, Sean is looking for a way to make money while having the least amount of communication or physical interactions with society at large that is humanly possible.
The only person that Sean consistently speaks with would be Cortez (Amari Cheatom of Django Unchained and Night Catches Us), his cousin, who makes a weekly three-hour trip out to the shanty to deliver pills, food, batteries, and anything else his cousin may need that week. Under a different director, Cheatom, who only has three or four scenes, might have stolen the entire movie with his deft comedic timing and physical presence, and he begins as a kind of proverbial palette cleanser between Sean’s bouts of increasing madness. Hickson, however, provides something of a one-man show for most of The Alchemist Cookbook, often communicating Sean’s jittery state-of-mind with little more than a wide-eyed gaze, a roaring cackle, or a seemingly instinctual gesticulation. If nothing else, The Alchemist Cookbook should secure Hickson and Cheatom a number of future roles in similarly daring movies or even more mainstream pictures.
It’s not until Cortez seemingly forgets to bring Sean his pills that things take a turn into more horrific terrain, and this is where Potrykus’ stylistic peccadillos come into play. The movie is tightly woven in its editing but there’s never a sense that Potrykus is pivoting the visual or narrative rhythms of the movie on familiar plot turns leading toward a predictable climax. Potrykus, who also wrote the movie, follows Sean’s not-so-slow deterioration with a fearless impulse to see not just the scary side of such mania but also to see how Sean, despite being afflicted, fights against this seeming inevitability. The script doesn’t attempt to reason out how Sean got this way but rather marvels at the disturbing visions that have become Sean’s everyday existence by the time the movie ends.
Potrykus labors to see the thrill and imagination that mental illness often invokes in people while also seeing the very real dangers of such perspectives. Buzzard focused on a cynical horror fiend’s plans to bilk his work (and other local businesses) out of money and the script and filmmaking made a point of stressing the ingenuity required to think up his little schemes, even as the young man at the center of the action is clearly psychologically troubled. Where that film teased with elements of horror and metaphysical flourishes of expression, however, The Alchemist Cookbook goes all in. In one exhilarating and haunting sequence, Sean speaks with a demonically possessed friend who giddily insinuates that Sean will soon be amongst the hellions as well. Potrykus smartly leaves things ambiguous as to whether or not Sean is seeing these things due to his lack of medication or if he’s really being besieged by Beelzebub’s minions.
Though Potrykus’s film could easily be labeled a work of psychological horror, The Alchemist Cookbook transcends the familiar trappings of that genre to evoke something more human and empathetic than simply conveying the terrors of the human mind. As Sean turns toward self-mutilation and severe suicidal thoughts, with only his cat left to bear witness, there are still flashes of humor, humanity, and imagination in the world that Potrykus has built for him. His aim is not to make you jump out of your seat, nor is it to sentimentalize or simplify the origins of Sean’s mental issues. The Alchemist Cookbook ends up being so satisfying and emotionally impactful because it’s power comes from a primarily visual and physical level, looking at actions and speech rather than drowning the film’s crucial immediacy with exposition and backstory. Potrykus asks us to simply sit and witness the horror and wonder of being either out of one’s mind or buried so deep inside it that you can no longer tell the difference between the darkness and the light.
The Alchemist Cookbook hits limited theaters and arrives on VOD starting October 7th.