TIFF Review: 'How Heavy this Hammer'

How Heavy this Hammer
(Canada, 75 min.)
Written and directed by Kazik Radwanski
Starring: Erwin Van Cotthem, Kate Ashley, Seth Kirsh, Andrew Latter
Programme: Contemporary World Cinema (World Premiere)
Photo courtesy of TIFF.

“I have a feeling that, in a former life, I was a Viking,” says Erwin (Erwin Van Cotthem) to an Internet date in the maplecore drama How Heavy this Hammer. Erwin definitely has the chops to be a Viking, for he smashes men on the rugby field and clobbers foes to smithereens in the video game world. Erwin’s a living, breathing Thor with his burly strength and powerful hammer, but he’s also a little boy trapped in a man’s body. How Heavy this Hammer begins and ends with Erwin sitting like a zombie, entranced in video game violence as he squishes baddies with his hammer through odd hours of the night. Writer/director Kazik Radwanski (Tower) builds a twitchy, disquieting portrait of a man nearing his mid-life crisis: How Heavy this Hammer is one intriguing lo-fi character study.

Erwin is notably distant with his wife (Kate Ashley) and too rough with his sons (Seth Kirsh and Andrew Latter). He forgets that they’re boys and not men as he tackles them on the pitch with full impact or berates them for checking his disinterest during family movie night. This man needs a release.

Whatever freedom Erwin finds in the video games and rugby, however, doesn’t seem to do him much good. How Heavy this Hammer contrasts Erwin’s two escapes as movements by two different men. One sits lethargic and oblivious to the world around him while he stares at the screen. The other explodes his energy the old Alpha male way by letting it out through sport. The former Erwin is fatally antisocial, while the latter relishes the camaraderie of the old boys’ club that goes along with rugby, like beer and bawdy drinking songs. Both Erwins, though, are bipolar expressions of a man stunted in adolescence. He simply doesn’t know what to do with his life or how to be a mature adult.

Van Cottheim seizes the difficult task of creating a lead character who is thoroughly unlikable, yet consistently empathetic. Erwin isn’t a bad man, although he’s certainly a boor and a slob, but his aggression and restlessness proves intriguing: just what does a man need to feel at ease with his place in the world?

There are moments in which Erwin displays the traits of a good husband and father. Latter-act episodes, like showing the boys the beauty of Toronto from a rooftop or helping them cook for their mom, show a man with the capacity for compassion. He learns from his mistakes—somewhat—in his own peculiar way.

Radwanski and DP Nikolay Michaylov tell virtually all of Erwin’s story in claustrophobic handheld close-ups on the man as he loses his grip on his family and struggles to find himself in the bipolar escapes of video games and rugby. The effect is both edgy and agitating as How Heavy this Hammer creates an image of a man on the brink, but also suffocates the viewers by blinding them to the world outside the frame. One feels Erwin’s high blood pressure and tension as the film bounces on tiptoes and observes Van Cottheim wheeze and grumble as Erwin lets the joy of family life slip away. The naturalism of the performances meshes with the bare bones aesthetic, for the actors don’t even use a shred of make-up to enhance their presence, and How Heavy this Hammer sits firmly within a canon of modest indie filmmaking that engages audiences with strong characters and relevant themes. It’s an original take on contemporary masculinity, if an unusual one, that provokes many questions.

How Heavy this Hammer screens:
-Sunday, Sept. 13 at TIFF Lightbox 3 at 10:00 PM
-Tuesday, Sept. 14 at TIFF Lightbox 4 at 5:00 PM

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Update: How Heavy this Hammer opens in Toronto at the Lightbox on Aug. 12.