In the interests of full disclosure I should state that I did back the funding of this film on Kickstarter. I did so as a fan of Bill Plympton’s work and so, if you think I liked this film based on this review I would hope you’d understand that it is as a fan of his films, and not because I backed it. Besides, backing on Kickstarter isn’t the same as investing in a film for profit. It’s pretty much the same as pre-ordering a game or a DVD. Hell, if you view backing a Kickstarter as a show of bias then you must also consider buying a DVD and thus giving money to a studio to further finance films and to monetarily support the film maker as a sign of bias also. I say this because disclosure has been a hot topic recently, and whilst yes, it is important, some people seem to have the wrong idea about what it means. Anyway, here’s my review that is clearly tainted by the money I gave to this film’s production.
Cheatin’ is a bitter-sweet, tale of two lovers who find themselves in a spiral of distrust. Their romance is classical at first but soon falls apart in a catastrophic manner. Whilst the premise is not an inherently new one, sharing elements with Dial M for Murder, albeit with the genders flipped, for example, the film manages to break loose of any preconceived shackles by proxy of being a film by Bill Plympton. You may not be aware of Bill Plympton by name but I’d like to think you’ve seen his work. Before I knew who he was by name I was a fan of his animation work on the Nik Naks adverts shown on UK television in the 90s. Later I discovered I Married A Strange Person! Which I cannot recommend highly enough. His films are frequently surrealistic. Often they delve head first into visual metaphor. They also revel in retro kitsch idealism that soon becomes subverted in a near grotesque manner. Cheatin’ fits all those descriptions.
The entirely dialogue free Cheatin’ manages in it’s brief 75 minute run time to convey a large range of emotional and narrative threads. The film plays out a lot like a silent movie in many ways with an incredibly rich score pulling you through the film. There’s even time for a rendition of Bolero to help confirm just how in love the main characters of Ella & Jake are in the most operatic way possible. Plympton’s animation style has always had a constant motion feel to it. No lines stay still at all on any of the characters. People literally vibrate with energy. This is coupled to the character art that is angular and contorted to the point of making the primary cast appear to always have a visual agency of forward momentum. Often, characters meant to slow the progress of the main cast, such as a police chief in the film’s final act, are drawn with a more robust, wall like structure. Wider shoulders, thicker bodies, that sort of thing.
The constant feeling of forward momentum does get hampered on a couple of occasions early one where visual metaphors are utilised a number of times over to hammer in the same information. This isn’t uncommon for Bill Plympton to do, he really loves visualising emotions in creative ways, but this does mean that, for a moment at least, the narrative stumbles when it could have dashed. That all said, the way Plympton controls pace in his films is by extending small moments to extreme. He revels in zooming right in on a small detail and taking his time to show it as vividly as possible, often accompanied by some Jan Svankmajer-esque audio queues. If you at all find bizarre flights of fancy and mind bending visuals to be troubling for your mind grapes you may struggle with Cheatin’. For anyone cool with weird shite you’ll likely fall in love with the film.
The animation work is beautifully complex in a number of shots. I may be wrong but I believe this is the first time Bill has entirely digitally composed and coloured a film. There’s some smart use of image layering to create depth to the image not often seen in this style of hand drawn art. This is helped along by Bill’s extremely liberal take on the conventions of such silly things as perspective and dimensional relativity in regards to locations. Small rooms become giant halls when space is needed for a dance number. A garden can become a field when a neighbour decides to launch her infinite supply of clothes over the fence to attract the attentions of Jake.
Cheatin’ is a wonderfully beautiful film to behold. Its simple narrative enriched by creative metaphor and fantasy. Layered with ironic twists, unpredictable shifts twists and richly designed characters, Cheatin’ is one of his finest works. Many are calling it Bill’s best. It could well be. I’d like another viewing before reaching that decision. It really is very much an excellent work and, surely, has to be in contention for a best animated feature Oscar next year.