Writer/director Mike Cheslik’s feature debut Hundreds of Beavers opens – and remains – in the wild frontier lands of around Lake Michigan, Wisconsin, some time during the 18th or 19th Century. There, Jean Kayak (co-writer Ryland Brickson Cole Tews) in many ways embodies the American Dream. For he is a rugged individualist and venture capitalist who has single-handedly built up a successful cider-making business – Acme Applejack – for the passing trade of fur trappers, until one day sabotage by beavers, and his own drunken ineptness, bring the whole enterprise crashing down.
Now alone in sub-zero conditions, with only the clothes on his back – and even those not for long – Jean now taps into all his resourcefulness and cunning to survive in the great outdoors and live off the land. For he must learn a new trade from The Master Fur Trapper (Wes Tank) and The Indian Fur Trapper (Luis Rico), and must cull enough beavers to win the hand of the more-than-willing Furrier (Olivia Graves) from her disapproving father The Merchant (Doug Manchenski). Yet if Jean proves unexpectedly resilient, even ingenious, in adapting to his new circumstances, his arch enemies the beavers are organised, industrious and socialised, and the massive log-mill Lodge that they are building together looks forward to the next centuries of American progress. These Beavers, far from being dumb critters, are a sophisticated, advanced culture which Jean is hell-bent on destroying.
If Jean is the ultimate outsider, Hundreds of Beavers is outsider art in extremis. Shot in monochrome, mixing not only real and cardboard sets, but also live action and storybook animation, Cheslik’s film is an anarchic retelling of America’s colonial history and aetiological myths, with the plundering of resources and the massacres of locals refashioned as silent(ish) slapstick, so that Jean is all at once buffoonish, cartoonish superhero and cruel, mass-murdering villain. The bodycount of beavers, as hinted by the title, is conveniently tallied on screen, while Jean even, like the antagonists of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), eats the flesh and wears the skins of his victims.
The decision to have the beavers, rabbits, wolves, dogs and horses that Jean encounters played by actors in animal suits (and termed ‘mascots’ in the closing credits) certainly brings a charming stylisation to the proceedings, while ensuring that no animals were harmed in the production – but it also subtly reminds the viewer that the victims slaughtered by white frontiersmen like Jean were sometimes entirely human indigenes. More specifically, the fact that the Beavers’ Lodge is located on (future) Green Bay, and that, in a film where most characters are restricted to grunts, laughs and screams, these furry creatures are heard to speak French, allies them with the local francophone Métis.
For the most part, though, Hundreds of Beavers wears these themes very lightly, while making hilarious hay from punishing pratfalls, surreal sight gags and Jean’s sheer MacGyver-esque inventiveness in designing and constructing deathtraps from whatever is at hand (in what is a mechanisation of violence). Fast-moving and ever escalating, this pits Man against Beast, Nature and the Elements while blithely ignoring the laws of physics or reason, in an expressionist adventure falling somewhere between the Paul Bunyan legends, Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar’s A Town Called Panic (2009) and Matthew Rankin’s The Twentieth Century (2019). It is a little bit Buster Keaton (only less lugubrious), a little bit Guy Maddin, a lot of Tom and Jerry or Bugs Bunny (inverted), and madly, marvellously funny through and through – even if everything, including the romantic scenes, is set amid bloody butchery. That, after all, is the American story.
strap: Mike Cheslik’s absurdly inventive feature debut rewrites America’s colonial history as surreally violent silent comedy
© Anton Bitel