Judge Adam Arseneau didn't find Heater to be "hot" enough for his tastes, so he lit the DVD on fire.
A road movie without the car.
Heater is a movie about homeless existentialism; like a low-budget suburban Canadian reworking of Waiting for Godot about the residentially challenged, a space heater, and a whole lot of nothing. But is this film a sizzling hit, or an ice-cold flop? Read on, gentle viewer, read on.
Facts of the Case
Ben has hit rock bottom. He has lost his wallet—again—and as such, cannot claim his monthly government support check. Since he cannot get his check, he has no money for rent, and the halfway house in which he was staying gives his room to someone else. Suddenly Ben is back on the street again, and ends up at a church mission. Here, he meets an incoherent drifter called only The Man, clutching reverently at a large, ungainly cardboard box. The box, he claims, contains a space heater, and whether it was found, stolen, or bought, he does not say, but the receipt is attached. So together, Ben and The Man formulate a plan, and set out to cross the town and return the heater to the store, struggling through the cold streets of Winnipeg, from the inner city to a suburban shopping mall, searching for the store of purchase and the golden Holy Grail that awaits them at the end of their journey—a full cash refund.
Though a stunningly blithe and painfully obvious statement it may be, it should be noted that nothing much happens in Heater. We see Ben and The Man stumble around the streets of Winnipeg, desperately clutching their space heater, trying with increased desperation to sell it for cash. As the audience, we are supposed to relish the irony that, since these men struggle desperately in the fierce Canadian winter for survival, they carry with them their salvation from the cold…literally. Fixated on the money that could be raised by selling the heater, it never occurs to them to simply plug it in and enjoy the warmth. Most will figure this out within twenty minutes, savor the topical irony like sweet candy, and then be bored for the remaining hour of the film.
The problem with Heater is that halfway to the finish line, it betrays its minimalist roots by actually doing things. Conceptually, for two Vladimir and Estragon-type protagonists, Heater is based on a sound idea and makes for an interesting concept, but not when things start to happen that contrast sharply (and negatively) with the minimalism the film has worked so hard to construct. Ben and The Man find themselves being chased by the police and getting into fistfights, for example, which isn't very existentialist. There is too much going on for the film to be a true minimalist / expressionist piece of cinema, and as such, once is forced to take off the sentimental art-house gloves and examine Heater within the harsh criteria of regular moviegoing. And when treated as a regular movie, well…Heater kind of sucks.
Even under the most sympathetic of critiques, Heater has problems. Had it remained true to its existentialist aims straight to the end, it might not have been a better film per se, but at least it would have stuck to its guns. It turns from a Samuel Beckett-type story, comfortable in its nothingness, into something of a social commentary about the homeless problem in Winnipeg, without any justification and basis for the change. The change is oblique and confusing, as if the film suddenly loses its gumption and desperately tries to be about something socially relevant, giving up on its previous esoteric examination into loneliness and friendship. Ironically, Heater has a critical point absolutely backwards: the film tries to incorporate more and more into the plot, but it leaves the character development minimalist to the core. This is bad; because when the film attempts to tweak the heartstrings in the third act, Heater can barely get us interested in the plight of its protagonists, who are, at heart, nothing more than a selfish jerk and a schizophrenic drifter. Combine a floundering script with rather unimpressive acting performances and Heater comes apart before it even gets going.
Another amusing thing of note: the packaging lists Stephen Ouimette as having a previous film credit of X-Men. Curious to which role he played, I did some research into this, and amusingly, this claim turns out to be slightly apocryphal; as according to the IMDb, Ouimette did voice work for two episodes of the 1992 animated X-Men cartoon. That's it. Like the movie itself, the packaging promises more than it delivers.
Heater is presented in a disappointing non-anamorphic widescreen transfer that neither thrills nor chills. Colors are muted and blasé but overall, not terribly unimpressive. Edge enhancements and anti-aliasing are problematic occasionally, but the general bleak and grainy tone of the film subdues most of the visual problems into a bleary, but not unattractive, viewing experience. The audio track in Dolby Digital 2.0 has far too much wind and atmospheric noise in the mix, which distracts from the dialogue. The music is moderately well mixed, but nothing to get too excited about—it sounds reasonable for a film of its quality and budget constraints. A theatrical trailer is the only extra feature here—no subtitles, audio options, or anything else.
Heater, though based around an interesting idea, doesn't really work out in the end. Not minimalist enough to be artistically interesting, and not interesting enough to be good entertainment, it plays like a downbeat promotional video for cold and snowy downtown Winnipeg made by manic-depressives.
If the idea of two people wandering around endlessly for an hour and a half sounds intriguing to you, there are more satisfying (and/or frustrating) experiences out there—Gerry, for example, does it much better. In the end, Heater just comes across as sad and boring.
Heater barely warms itself up. Guilty!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Vanguard Cinema
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