A man lives alone in the woods with his cat, attempting to use alchemy to summon the devil and create riches for himself. Plotwise, that’s about all there is to Joel Potrykus’ The Alchemist Cookbook, a film that I find hard to organize thoughts on. Much of what I like about it lies just beyond the grasp of my ability to verbalize, possibly because what I enjoyed so much in the film doesn’t quite feel concrete, and might more come from the feeling the film captures. This is a film with an aura, and for a film that deals so much with the implied, or presences more felt than seen, the balance is an accomplishment for Potrykus.
Ty Hickson plays Sean, the lead in a role where the vast majority of his screentime is shared with animals or imaginary(?) demons. Much of the film is spent watching him in during a mental grapple with himself, scored by classical music, hip hop, and punk rock. Such an isolated, weird performance could be hard to connect with, but Hickson and Potrykus make it all feel human. Sean struggles, that much is clear, but almost all of the external variables that brought him to the point where we meet him are just barely hinted at. The film is kept insular by severing most ties to the outside world, holding close to Sean alone in the Michigan woods. Without much in the way of human company, Sean comes alive in small moments shared with non-verbal companions. One of the strongest and most memorable arcs of the film is his relationship to a possum. Late in the film, when his constant feline companion is suddenly missing, it’s as anxious and disorienting as any other moment in the film.
Sean interacts with one other human character in The Alchemist Cookbook, a vaguely defined relative named Cortez, played by Amari Cheatom. He is our link to an outside world we know must exist, a world we understand Sean must have at one point been a part of, and that contextualizes Sean in a fascinating way. Sean and Cortez’s exchanges help reset the pace when watching Sean be a weirdo alone in the woods threatens to become a bit too much. Importantly, Cortez is funny, and brings out a humor and tiny, tiny joy in Sean that makes his descent all the more tragic. Their first meeting, where Cortez defiantly chokes down catfood to playfully spite Sean, relieves much of the tension and anxiety that comes when we’re alone with him. It grounds the film in something that feels real. We don’t really know why Sean is doing what he’s doing. We don’t know much of his backstory. In a powerful image towards the end of the film, he stoically burns a photograph of a black child in the arms of an older relative, but there’s no further context. We can assume the child in the photograph is Sean, we don’t really know. That one photograph, and how Sean interacts with it, imply infinite possible stories. Where does he come from? We can make extrapolations, but they aren’t really the point. This is where he is now, and we’re along for the ride with him as he makes his way down a haunting spiral.
Sean never reads aloud from the book he’s taking his scientific and spiritual rituals from. Title cards mark the chapter names and inform a little bit some vague goals or themes, but most of the time we’re not quite sure how much of what Sean is doing is out of the book or just part of a delusion. That’s an important and intentional balance, the Alchemist Cookbook is a film that may feel like it leaves a lot of the heavy lifting to us, but everything Potrykus does feels exact and purposeful. Its humor and horror are expertly orchestrated. Potrykus finds one of the film’s most spine-chilling images in broad daylight, and in its final moments, leading us to a place where the most terrifying and urgent presence is one we create in our own minds. The final scene is as memorable and masterful a sequence as I’ve seen in film this year, a simultaneously thrilling and subtle realization of the ambiguous and intriguing story Potrykus has expertly put together. The film is a mystery, but one that confidently trusts its audience. That’s not an easy balance to strike, and a testament to Potrykus’ work that he succeeds.