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3.0 out of 5 stars
An original but somewhat flawed film, 22 Nov 2012
Pontypool (directed by Bruce McDonald) tells the story of a small Ontario town in Canada which has fallen victim to an unknown viral infection. The film, for the most part, takes place exclusively in a radio station where the horror unfolds through police reports, eye witness accounts and helicopter reporter Ken (Rick Roberts).
The minimalist style of narrative used in the first half of Pontypool plays out much like Orson Welles' radio broadcast of War of the Worlds. This helps us empathize with the 3 lead characters who are just as uncertain and confused by the pandemic as the viewer. Stephen McHattie in particular gives a great central performance as radio broadcaster Grant. His range varying from nuanced to evocative within a matter of seconds. The other 2 leads Sydney and Laurel-Ann don't fare quite as well, though their performances are serviceable (respectively played by Lisa Houle and Georgina Reilly). This is particularly evident in Sydney's phone conversation to her daughter which fails to capture the intensity and emotion that the scene calls for. Pontypool flows well as events slowly escalate from a normal day at work (albeit with difficulties between the producer and the broadcaster) to chaos as reports come in of 100's dead.
Within the first 45 minutes there were several thought provoking scenes; from the report of a mother and daughter being trapped in their car under dozens of dead bodies for over an hour to practically every scene with Ken. Of particular mention are Ken's reports of a teenage boy with no hands and subsequently hearing the boy say `mama' in a baby's voice repeatedly, which serve as the stand out scenes in the film. Hearing these reports evokes a more profound level of horror as they conjure more graphic and effective imagery than merely witnessing them. A scene where a radio station caller can be heard dying is also worth mentioning. Equally, Rick Roberts should be commended, his performance appearing both genuine and haunting to help visualise his situation within the chaos; his acting only second to that of Stephen McHattie.
However, Pontypool greatly suffers once the character Dr Mendez (Hrant Alianak) is introduced just past the halfway mark. Hrant Alianak gives an especially hammy performance which took me out of the diegesis that the film had carefully constructed in the first half. Furthermore, aside from Dr Mendez being the cause of the infection his sole purpose is to spurt clumsy exposition which could of otherwise been told through more reports or better yet, left ambiguous. This problem extents to the concept of the infected `horde'. While the twist that the infection spreads through the English language is an original idea (while also adding complexity to the `mama' scene and resolution to the foreign transmission sequence) it is impractical in the second half of the film. Bruce McDonald and screenplay writer Tony Burgess (who also wrote the novel which the film is based on) seem at odds with whether they want the twist to be left to interpretation or given insight and in the process they end up trying to do both. Badly. This leads to the final act becoming a muddled convoluted mess. Throw in an underutilised or otherwise unnecessary `horde' entering the radio station which is devoid of any tension, and a desperate attempt to create chemistry between Grant and Sydney in awkward back-stories about ex-husbands and an even more awkward kiss scene and the film seems to fall apart.
It's a shame as well because the first half is so effective. Pontypool didn't need an intricate plot and should of instead focused on its strengths; its strong emotions, the fear of the unknown, and how the world was being affected around the radio station but not inside. The film is perhaps best seen as original but somewhat flawed, with a strong first half let down by a particular weak second.