[Cinequest 2023] HUNDREDS OF BEAVERS -- Absurdist Silent Comedy Romp Is One of the Best of the Century
Review by Daniel Lima
Comedy cinema is in dire straits. It is rare that we ever see a film that takes full advantage of the medium, using every element of the craft to get as many laughs as possible. Gone are the visual gags, the slapstick, the surreal and the absurd. These days, the few studio comedies that get released are either self-aware dreck that is too ironic to commit to the bit (“Well, that just happened”), or follow the Apatow model of dialogue-based riffing contests that must end on a sentimental, dramatic note. As bleak as this landscape is, sometimes you get a work that is so self-possessed, so passionate, so full of verve and energy and fun that you can’t help but feel exhilarated while watching it. Sometimes, you get Hundreds of Beavers.
The film tells a simple story of a drunkard in New France — that is, Canada before it was handed over to the British — who, through a series of silly mishaps, begins a life as a fur trapper. He struggles to survive, he gains the attention of the local tradesman’s daughter, and most importantly, he earns the ire of hundreds of large rodents that like to chew on trees.
Where filmmakers Mike Cheslik and Ryland Brickson Cole Tews’s last effort was a riff on 1950s science fiction films, this takes clear inspiration from the silent era: largely dialogue-free, black-and-white cinematography, utilizing basic effects work and cinematic tricks that could have been managed over a century ago. For their part, the duo has said the film is more a product of figuring out what they can do with limited resources than born out of a deep love of silent films. As mercenary as it may sound on the surface, this motivation benefits the movie, turning the typical deficiencies of a low budget indie — a lack of scale, a certain rough and shaggy quality — into boons. It has the ironic effect of forcing the creative team to make use of what they have in much the same way as those early cinematic pioneers did. The result is a film that feels every bit as fresh as a new Buster Keaton short must have felt on release.
Beginning with a rousing song that combines live-action footage with crude yet expressive animation, the film announces its exceedingly casual relationship with reality from the jump. Animals depicted as humans in cheap costumes and felt puppets, blatant green-screens and compositing allowing unique shifts in perspective and impossible stunts, clever use of old-school editing, mattes, and cutout animation bring life to the backgrounds. Reminiscent of the films of Méliès, these elements come together to create a sense of magic and wonder, a feeling that absolutely anything is possible within any frame.
All this is completely in the service of comedy. Like the silent comedians of yesteryear, all the jokes are visual, and the breadth of the cinematic techniques used and the rapid-fire pace that the gags are doled out make for a film that is impossible not to laugh through from start to finish. There's simple slapstick like an empty beaver costume flying through the air, only to hit a wall and match cut to a person falling to the ground; a recurring gag sees a man attempt to spit tobacco into a cup, only for him to miss in increasingly ludicrous ways; a trap consisting of a typical snowman holding a fishing rod fails, and the snowman that replaces it has a finely defined musculature… and still fails. Recounting every single gag would be an arduous task, consuming more time than the film itself, but it’s the kind of anarchic, chaotic, throw-everything-at-the-wall sense of humor that is sorely lacking in the media of today.
Perhaps the most important element of this is the editing. Most contemporary comedies leave ample dead space between lines, as if to give an audience enough time to process the joke and laugh before going on to the next. Rhythm and timing are as important to a comic set piece as they are to action, and this commonplace approach deflates any sense of momentum that a film is attempting to build. Hundreds of Beavers, on the other hand, is impeccably timed, with shots held for laboriously long when enduring it makes for a bigger laugh, and abruptly short when a jarring cut serves as a punctuation mark that makes a gag even richer. It’s a level of precision that can evade even veteran comics. To see this level of deftness from relative newcomers is a testament to their ability.
As madcap and fantastic as the film gets — particularly in the jaw dropping tour-de-force climax — there is something strangely affecting about the simple story of a man trying to make something of himself. Ryland Brickson Cole Tews plays the lead role, and he lends the character a charm that is every bit as infectious as the actual comedy. It’s an incredibly committed performance, particularly when watching him do stunts like rolling down a hill in a box, or walking through the snow in the middle of a Canadian winter (most of the film was shot on location). To see his character persevere through hardship and acclimate to his new lifestyle is genuinely thrilling, almost like watching a video game character level up, and by the end of the film it’s hard not to root for him. Considering the degree of comedic sociopathy he displays, that is no small feat.
Ultimately, trying to describe what makes Hundreds of Beavers so special feels like a fool’s errand. Words don’t seem to do justice to the manic vision and command of film craft on display, the mastery of comedic timing and sheer density of gut-busting, inventive gags. Combining a modern independent spirit with traditions going back to the birth of the medium, this is the perfect encapsulation of all the things that make people fall in love with cinema. If in a decade’s time, this film is not spoken of as one of the best of the 21st century, it will either be because a new cinematic golden age will have dawned, or because not enough people will have discovered it. That, or the beavers will have won.
Hundreds of Beavers screens at the 2023 Cinequest Film Festival, which runs from August 15 to August 30.