Some devilish stroke of the scheduling gods had me viewing a press screening of the new kiddie movie Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer the same day I saw Christopher Munch’s Letters from the Big Man, an offering in the Seattle International Film Festival. The two films share nothing except female protagonists and the presence of Bigfoot. I mention the coincidence only to point out that putting a Sasquatch in a motion picture is generally a signal of comedy, craziness (“I saw Bigfoot once” – Close Encounters of the Third Kind), or conspiracy-theory tinfoil-hat-wearing documentary hoax.
Letters from the Big Man, on the other hand, takes an almost casual seriousness in presenting a tale of Bigfoot. And yet, it’s Bigfoot – how can there not be an undercurrent of absurdity running beneath the surface, especially when the mythical yeti is portrayed with such matter-of-fact nonchalance, as he is here? In the early going, Munch follows a young woman, Sarah, into the forests of Southern Oregon, where she is taking measurements for a survey in an area recently torched by fire. She is also taking a survey of herself, in the aftermath of a personal conflagration, a relationship that burned itself out with some bad feelings in its path. She is a loner by nature, anyway; she might’ve taken a partner on this job, but chose not to. (Lily Rabe, daughter of Jill Clayburgh and David Rabe, plays the part with just the right flinty self-possession and social awkwardness.)
Bigfoot’s around, too. Within the shimmering light that paints woods and river, the hairy creature moseys about, peering at Sarah and curling up on his pine-needle featherbeds. Munch (The Hours and Times) shoots all this rapturously, and the beautifully unforced presence of the Sasquatch (he sometimes makes weird noises and drums in the night, but hardly seems a figure of menace) creates a pleasing disconnect between what we’re seeing and what we expect from a Bigfoot picture; it’s like watching Terrence Malick direct the Legend of Boggy Creek remake.
After Sarah’s initial journey into the forest, the film fans out in unexpected ways: not only for her tentative romance, but also plot strands about a secret government plot to study Bigfoot, the creature’s apparently telepathic or otherwise mind-clouding powers, and Sarah’s friendship with a bearded logger (another unexpected reversal: the logger comes across as more personally sympathetic than the ecologist). These oddball ideas are delivered in such a sketchy way that they almost seem like MacGuffins from a different kind of movie, offered here as though to demonstrate how another film might follow one of these strands into the realm of eco-romance or conspiracy thriller or whatever. Whereas Letters from the Big Man will ultimately veer quietly away from those possibilities and back to the trees.
We begin to hear Bigfoot’s voice, or possibly Sarah’s head imagining Bigfoot’s voice. Which “letters,” if that’s what they are, are never quite as eloquent as his wordless (but far from silent) domain, so superbly conjured whenever Sarah goes into the forest (actually, even when she’s under a roof, she’s in the woods, given the remote location of her rented house). At the end, the film retreats from considerations of plot, and gallantly withdraws as Sarah - followed by her hairy shadow – heads into the woods again, this time for a more extended journey. Turns out the movie was a romance after all.