'Tread': Film Review

Courtesy of SXSW
Finely executed exploration at one man's delusional, destructive resentment.
2/28/2020

Paul Solet's doc recounts a hard-to-believe daylong rampage that terrified a Colorado town in 2004.

A tale of long-simmering grudges and shocking violence in a small town, Paul Solet's Tread is a smartly structured doc with a finale so extravagant you could build an exploitation film around it: On June 4, 2004, a professional welder in Granby, Colorado drove what amounted to a homemade tank around town, destroying the workplaces of men who had done him wrong. The story of what actually happened in this community is complicated enough to sustain a longform true crime serial, but as a feature doc, Tread's strongest suit is its complicated view of its subject's persecution complex — a self-righteous resentment that will be familiar to many viewers. For those of us who've known men like Marvin Heemeyer, the mountain of justifications leading to his attack may elicit bitter laughter of recognition. Having had more than a decade to grapple with his acts, though, Granby residents take a more sober (and, in some cases, more empathetic) view.

Perhaps the oddest thing in the tale is the assertion that, despite Heemeyer's conviction that the town was out to get him, he was widely seen as a welcome addition to the Colorado town. A local cop tells us he was known as the best welder around, and that nobody disliked him. Having discovered the town while vacationing and decided to build a life there, Heemeyer was in a happy relationship and had friends; a crew of them went on regular snowboard outings, and Heemeyer welded stout custom bumpers for all their vehicles.

He graduated from working in someone else's muffler shop to starting his own, but ran into zoning issues with the large lot he bought for a song at auction. The city wanted him to hook into local plumbing lines, an expensive project that would involve running pipes through a neighbor's property. But as Heemeyer saw it, that neighbor was a rival for his land who wanted nothing more than to see him fail.

We hear all about that in a series of audiotapes he recorded just before he went on his rampage — his aggrieved rant describes all the ways the "good ol' boys" in local government and the business community had kept him from what was rightfully his. When we later learn that he passed up opportunities to realize a tenfold return on his investment (after already amassing a sizable savings), one wonders just how much success this man felt entitled to.

In between reenactments that elaborate on Heemeyer's side of things, Solet conducts many interviews that, given their nearly unanimous agreement, probably tell a truer story. At worst, locals at the time saw a dispute over plans to build a concrete plant next to Heemeyer's property; none, it seems, realized he thought they were persecuting him, nor did they see the rage building inside him. But that rage would soon lead him to buy a massive bulldozer, upon which he'd build a practically impenetrable fortress. Its walls consisted of two thick steel plates with concrete poured between them; it's a marvel the thing could move under all that weight, much less tear down the buildings where its driver's enemies lived and worked.

Solet uses the film's last third to describe the havoc that, as Heemeyer's tapes frequently assert, God wanted him to wreak. Surprisingly good effects work envision the start of that long day, when victims struggled to make sense of what was happening; as the 'dozer knocks down some walls and moves onward through town, the doc has an increasing amount of film and photos shot by locals to work with. Both present a gripping narrative, and it's a story that very briefly captured the world's attention.

Then, the next day, Ronald Reagan died, making all other news obsolete. That may be just as well in this case: While lone-madman stories typically get the most media exposure when the least is understood about them, Tread benefits greatly from the passage of time — both in the calm perspectives brought by townsfolk who've had years to cope with shock; and from Solet's willingness to look Marvin Heemeyer straight in the eye, understand his irrational anger without demonizing him, and ride along on his final day with a sense of sadness for all involved.

Production companies: Zipper Bros Films, Sutter Road Picture Company
Director: Paul Solet
Producers: Sean Stuart, Glen Zipper, Doug Liman, Dave Bartis, Gene Klein
Executive producers: Victor Shapiro, Raphael Swann
Director of photography: Zoran Popovic
Editor: Darrin Roberts
Composer: Austin Wintory

88 minutes