Goliath (Directors: David and Nathan Zellner):

“Are you the motherfucker they call Bitchtits?”

This outrageous line of dialogue occurs just when we think our protagonist can’t get any more unlucky. And then the speaker attempts to light his own farts with a butane barbecue lighter. It’s a laugh-out-loud moment in a very funny film that nevertheless has very few laugh-out-loud moments.

Austin filmmakers Nathan and David Zellner have been making their films since 1997 and are remarkably prolific, producing four features and 10 shorts (plus a number of music videos), all while keeping their day jobs.

I remember Goliath playing at South by Southwest back in 2008, but didn’t have a chance to see it. When I spotted it on Netflix a week ago, I was intrigued. I’m a fan of American indie film, and this looked like a fun way to spend 80 minutes. But while I was expecting a light comedy, this is something quite different.

The irony of the line of dialogue I quoted is that we never learn the name of our protagonist, although if there was a modern-day equivalent to the biblical character of Job, this is the guy.

Our man has hit a patch of incredibly bad luck. His wife has left him for reasons we never learn, he’s been demoted at work, and worst of all, his beloved cat Goliath has run away. As the rest of his life crumbles, he’s determined to find Goliath. He drives around at night looking for him. He puts up posters all over the neighbourhood. Knowing how Goliath always came when he heard the sound of the electric can opener, he rigs it up to a battery and takes it out on neighbourhood walks. But nothing works.

Meanwhile, his downward spiral continues. He hates his workmates (or maybe more accurately, they ignore him), his divorce is being finalized, and he doesn’t seem to have any friends or family for support. When he finally finds Goliath, the film takes a much darker turn.

Played to sad-sack perfection by co-director David Zellner, who embues him with just the right amount of pathos, our loser starts looking for plots and conspiracies. When he discovers that a sex offender is living in his neighbourhood, he begins to fixate on him as the target for all of his pent-up rage.

It was here where the film had me the most uncomfortable. Although our protagonist’s journey is painfully funny, I worried about him doing something truly crazy. It’s a thin line (especially in gun-happy America) between comedy and horrific violence, and I think the filmmakers set a deliberately off-kilter tone that makes Zellner’s character equal parts Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate) and Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver). It’s interesting to note that both violence and laughter in film are common forms of releasing the tension from unbearable situations.

Which is where I want to leave things. Goliath is a film that has lingered in my memory, getting better the longer I think about it.

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