The Zellner Brothers made their name with a series of shorts -- made on a budget, crafted with verve, full of a very American minimalism. They were shorts where the punchlines were funny, but the long, agonized pause after was what really made you laugh. In their feature-length debut, Goliath, writer-director David Zellener plays our unnamed protagonist, a fussy, perpetually upset high-tech worker facing an ugly divorce, a demotion at work and the general collapse of his life. He has one connection to the world, though -- his cat, Goliath. Goliath is there for him (and what may be more subconsciously important in his darker moments is the fact that he is there for Goliath). Goliath matters.
Goliath is missing.
And with that, things go from bad to worse with startling speed in a journey to the bottom full of the sort of comedy that springs from sincere, writhe-in-your seat discomfort. All the indignities and miseries of modern life are heaped upon our hero in Goliath -- legal troubles, humiliating career setbacks, the collapse of marriage -- and a few new ones are added like sprinkles on top: The sex offender down the street, the grim excitement of found pornography, the background hum of the server farm punctuated only by the sound of your idiot co-workers beatboxing their lunch break away. Things are not good, and Goliath being missing is not helping any.
And while Goliath may feel, at times, like a short on steroids, there are also such brief blasts of bizarre comedy in it that you have to stay on your toes. Goliath has large jokes and small ones, from miniature chainsaw assault to a flickering moment of font selection. It also has meticulously parsed jokes, like a scene where the signing of divorce papers has the pauses and stops and starts and staccato motions of a John Cage composition. It also manages to be profane yet profound -- when Zellner explains to his ex the exact physical details of a moment of infidelity, he's simultaneously clueless, shameless and truly sorry. When our hero somehow becomes convinced that the sex offender in his neighborhood is somehow linked to Goliath's departure, his confrontation with the offender (played by producer-editor Nathan Zellner with more than a few bits of ornamentation tacked onto what could have been an off-the-rack characterization) doesn't play as suspense or thrills but rather as scene taken from a (strange) comedy of (strained) manners.
And I keep calling David Zellner's lead 'our hero,' but that's not quite the right turn of phrase. Zellner owns specific bleak touches in his portrait of the fruitless behavior of the mid-'30s mid-divorce male: eating microwave meals over the sink, the brief thrill of elation over meaningless victories, the wild swings between clenched anger and crumpled sadness. It feels less like a great dramatic performance than a great portrait of a documentary subject -- which, of course, means it's a great performance. In Goliath, much as in Chusy Haney-Jardine's Anywhere, U.S.A., the deadpan can, occasionally, turn into dead space. But Goliath never outstays its welcome as fiercely as Haney-Jardine's film does, and while at the time I saw it late in the festival Goliath may have felt a little padded and puffed-out, something in the rhythm of the film and the quiet confidence of it lingered with me far longer than I thought it was going to. Goliath isn't showy or overdone or glib or clever; it's at its best when it hangs in the dead silence of an uncomfortable moment and dares you to look at, and laugh at, or truly see and feel, what's going on. And for all the surreal touches, there's also real heart to the movie; we get to see our protagonist at his worst, but we get to see him at his best, and we bear witness to his hopes and efforts in a way that's just as intimate as our witness of his failures and misery. Goliath,unlike many of its Sundance '08 peers, isn't a sweeping political polemic or a bold barbaric yawp of dramatic self-assertion; it's a welcome, funny, human reminder of the simple fact that the little things can mean a lot, both in life and in art.