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A classic example of how documentaries often can take their makers down unexpected paths, Searching for Eddie Running Wolf is a wayward but intriguing debut from multihyphenate director Thomas Hartmann. At once a road movie, an autobiographical chronicle of tricky family relations, an inquiry into artistic responsibility and — courtesy of one protracted and genuinely disturbing sequence that may be too much for some viewers to bear — a harrowing glimpse into mental illness, the film will spark debate and polarize opinions around the nonfiction festival circuit.
Very much front and center throughout, the gregarious Hartmann makes no bones about how he hopes his quest for the eponymous wood-carver will, thanks to the magic of cinema, save him from his day job of working on wedding videos. As Hartmann hits the road in his parents’ beloved SUV along with his man-child partner in crime — and co-camera operator — Juan Montelongo, the pair are at least as much Borat and Azamat as they are Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo, but they make for genial, kibitzing company.
As Hartmann relates, Eddie Running Wolf was a longtime friend of his family and had been hired for several elaborate jobs by his father, a wealthy Illinois doctor. The professional relationship foundered, however, after Dr. Hartmann tasked Eddie with creating a marble statue inspired by the work of his favorite writer, Ayn Rand. Having made a substantial down payment to the brilliant but idiosyncratic artist, “Dr. Joe” became increasingly concerned and then dismayed by Running Wolf’s slow progress. The months then turned into years, and ultimately contact was broken off between patron and artisan. When Hartmann Jr. decides to take up the case, setting off cross-country to Colorado, Eddie proves surprisingly easy to track down. He welcomes Hartmann and Montelongo into his home, and they hang out with his wife, Melissa, over a few beers — at which point Searching for Eddie Running Wolf takes its abrupt left-field turn from larkishness into much darker terrain.
Melissa, in effect, has a nervous breakdown on camera during a scene that runs for several minutes and casts a shadow over all that follows — both in terms of its impact on the film and on its makers, who are faced with a thorny ethical dilemma, but also with regard to the Wolf family and Eddie’s personal and professional situation. The business of the statue becomes of secondary importance from here on out, although the film’s third-act resolution — courtesy of some imaginatively drastic action on the part of larger-than-life Dr. Joe — raises a whole other set of questions, which add further nuance and topicality to what had seemed initially like a slightly juvenile and self-satisfied enterprise.
Crucially, Hartmann manages to balance humor and seriousness, and he does a reasonably competent job of condensing such eclectic material into a feature-length running time. He’s clearly no Eddie Running Wolf in terms of flair or sheer talent, but whereas the sculptor foundered by biting off more than he could chew, Hartmann at least seems to know — and be able to work within — his own limitations.
Production company: Blink of an Eye
Director-screenwriter-producer-editor-composer: Thomas Hartmann
Executive producer: Sharon Hartmann
Cinematographers: Thomas Hartmann, Juan Montelongo
Sales: Blink of an Eye
No rating, 98 mins.
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