Austin-based indie directors David and Nathan Zellner have spent more time thinking about Sasquatch than most filmmakers do musing about human beings. In 2011, they brought “Sasquatch Birth Journal 2” to the Sundance Film Festival, a four-minute faux nature documentary in which a hirsute creature can be seen giving birth to an equally furry infant. Thirteen years later, the siblings return with “Sasquatch Sunset,” a one-joke feature that leaves the amateur videographer gimmick behind, committing itself to tracking a year in the lives of a Sasquatch family of four — let’s call them Big Foot, Mama Foot, Tender Foot and Buster (the runt of the litter).
In case you were wondering, the joke is that the film exists at all … because who would finance, much less star in, an 88-minute portrait of these apocryphal brutes? The late-arriving punchline comes with the end credits, when the names Riley Keough and Jesse Eisenberg appear beside blurry photographs of Mama and her sensitive, tree-hugging son, followed by a list of 25 executive producers. Top of that roster: Ari Aster, whose artistic partner Lars Knudsen was chief enabler on this highly eccentric project — which is admirable for the absurdist earnestness with which it was created.
Fun fact: Every year, at least a dozen Bigfoot movies are made, most of them either horror movies or crackpot docs. Few if any register with the general public in what amounts to one of the nichest genres (one that lends itself to low-budget movies, given the shaky-cam Patterson-Gimlin footage that started it all). Amid such meretricious competition, “Sasquatch Sunset” seems poised to become the most popular live-action Bigfoot movie since “Harry and the Hendersons,” if only for the sheer curiosity value.
Add to that the novelty of observing this (imaginary) nomadic species forage, feed, fart and fornicate in their natural habitat for a year without uttering a single word. To the creatures’ (and performers’) credit, they bark, snarl and hoot, all of which has been scripted and performed with a seriosity that borders on the comedic. But unlike the unintentionally hilarious Life Day segment from “The Star Wars Holiday Special” (spoken entirely in the Wookiee tongue), “Sasquatch Sunset” is funny by design. It’s just that the humor is pitched at such a strange register, somewhere between poignant and Sas-scatological — as in the scene where Foot family members defecate in their hands and sling the turds at the birds picking at a tragically deceased relative.
Believe it or not, “Sasquatch Sunset” is told in such a way that you feel for these beasts, experiencing genuine concern when the latest addition to the family stops breathing, and possibly even shedding a tear when Eisenberg’s “Tender” character (who takes time to interact with the local wildlife) gets trapped beneath a giant log. Be warned: A Foot (or four) don’t make it to the end, to the extent that the film’s title adds a low-key tension all its own. Could we be witnessing the final weeks of an elusive endangered species?
Compared to the hokey hair-suit outfit featured in the Zellners’ 2011 short, the costumes and makeup here are “Planet of the Apes”-level impressive (the original late-’60s-onward franchise, not the uncanny-valley sequels of more recent vintage). The directors make a welcome commitment to practical effects, which makes this unicorn of a movie all the more unique, in that it upholds an aesthetic that may also be going extinct. The “anatomically correct” Sasquatches look consistent with urban legend, with long hair sprouting from their chins and limbs, thinner around their chests and breasts. The males have thin pink genitals that point straight up when aroused — but unlike Walerian Borowczyk’s “The Beast,” it’s all in good taste.
Nathan Zellner embodies the alpha Big Foot patriarch, who’s taller and more aggressive than the others. Smaller in stature, Christophe Zajac-Denek plays the youngest, while Keough and Eisenberg are all but unrecognizable beneath all the furry prosthetics, though there’s a brilliance to the body language of all four, as well as what they manage to convey with their eyes. The movie encourages us to laugh, but it also wants us to care about these creatures — enough that we’ll invest the energy in interpreting their behavior, the way Jane Goodall might her gorillas. They act less like primates than primitive cavemen, oblivious to fire, always on the move, marking their territory when threatened (in one of the movie’s more disgusting scenes).
Gorgeously lensed by DP Michael Gioulakis — the eye behind “Us” and “It Follows” — in Humboldt County, Calif. (where giant footprints were found as early as 1958), “Sasquatch Sunset” makes the most of its untamed environs. The opening sequence alone, which patiently watches the sun rise over misty mountains dense with forests, sets the tone for what follows. The Zellners wink at the Patterson-Gimlin film with the Sasquatches’ first appearance, ambling upright through a beam of a sun in an otherwise murky clearing.
Shot on digital, but lit to look like a classic Disney nature feature — in a nod to an era when studios were routinely making movies about wild animals — the widescreen film manages to be achingly beautiful at times. That’s a feeling keenly enhanced by Austin-based experimental band The Octopus Project’s sublime atmospheric score, which lands somewhere between folk guitars around a campfire and the trippy cosmic stylings of Werner Herzog collaborators Popol Vuh.
The vast majority of moviegoers will have no interest in — much less patience for — what the Zellner brothers are doing with “Sasquatch Sunset,” but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t riveted. The movie is an out-there oddity, like 1973’s truly bizarre, absurdist urban parable “Themroc” (a super-obscure, ultra-weird title worth dropping for those curious enough to have read this far), and the Zellners succeed in reining practically any impulse that would spoil it. Sasquatches may not exist, but miraculously enough, this movie does, and like the creatures it depicts, it must be seen to be believed.