Have you ever played that game when people-watching where you make up complex backstories for the folks you see? That person over there, crossing the road, they may look innocuous, but did you know they are actually an international agent on their way to sabotage the nation? Well, Metal Detector Maniac, from the folks at Motern Media (about whom we have a podcast) takes this game and makes a film out of it. It is a simple tale of two musicians, called Matt Farley and Tom Scalzo (played by actual musicians, Matt Farley and Tom Scalzo), who see a metal detectorist in the park and become convinced that they are a maniac, and are responsible for all of the wrongdoing in the area (at one point going on to claim they are evil incarnate).
It is a premise that starts out like a hangout comedy, the accusations are an excuse to just have Farley and Scalzo hang around in the local area just chatting nonsense. The two, you see, are on a sabbatical from their job at the local university (they are professors of music) which they are using, in theory, to write a new album. In reality, they are mostly playing one on one basketball, spitballing conspiracies about the local populace, and then just jamming in their basement. It is slice of life stuff, well realised as this is what Farley and Scalzo (the actors now) actually do. The wider Motern Crew, of which they are a part, make movies for the fun of it (watched by a dedicated audience) and these specific members (alongside some others) also make a lot of music — mostly just observational stuff, novelty songs but not in a pejorative way. It’s an endearing and fascinating lifestyle run on enthusiasm and passion, and it translates perfectly on screen. This makes for a charming watch, one heightened still by the always excellent dialogue of a Motern movie.
As I articulated in my article about Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You (2012), these movies (penned by Charles Roxburgh and Matt Farley) have this very specific style of dialogue. It is very naturalistic, Farley is writing for himself so, unsurprisingly, knows his own voice. And, as this is an example of movies made by a community of friends, the writers know just how to capture each person’s voice and thus harness a necessary naturalism. In addition to this, though, there is a heightened verbosity where Roxburgh and Farley just have fun with words. There’s a prosaic surrealism achieved through the language choices, in which everyday phrases are inflected with atypical words in a way that’s just plain fun. This pair have an innate understanding of how some phrases, or words, are just funny, and they know how to construct sentences that just make you giggle (even if there is no clear joke). They are also so great with running gags, introducing incidental details, or throwaway phrases, that loop around the movie or just come back in wonderful ways. Each Motern film feels like its own little universe and Metal Detector Maniac is no exception, as unique catchphrases start to bounce around and you get pulled in by its unique verbal rhythms.
This is all par for the course though, another Motern movie that does that thing they do. However, Metal Detector Maniac goes places. Yes, it’s a hangout comedy reminiscent of parts of Adventures in Cruben County (2002) and Local Legends (2013), but it’s also a paranoid thriller that escalates. When Matt Farley (the real Matt Farley) joined myself and Editor-in-Chief, Calvin Kemph, on The Twin Geeks podcast, he spoke of his love of the low stakes drama in slasher movies that exists to juxtapose the slashing. Over his career, he has pursued this passion and made a genre out of it: movies that inverse this equation. A Matt Farley and Charles Roxburgh movie may be a genre film, this certainly is a thriller, but these elements exist to find new ways to let characters just hang out and exist in the world. In a slasher, the characters hang around and goof off to make the slashing (ostensibly why you are there) more shocking and more impactful. The back third of Metal Detector Maniac goes to some wild places that had me in stitches (real belly laughs), but every one of these ripples to the plot seems like an excuse to have our characters react to it, and that’s the fun part. Just spending time with the fictionalised Scalzo and Farley is such a joy, the way they talk to each other and joke around is such a joy, and the narrative progression just gives them more material.
Though, saying this, the way the narrative complicates is deeply satisfying. It is overtly ambitious and doesn’t feel random. Yes, previous films were hangout features with occasional druid attacks, but this felt like a joke. The plot here exists as an extension of the characters, and is driven by them (and adds to them). It gets outlandish, but naturally so in a way that feels like a cohesive build. Towards the end of the film, we are in pseudo John Waters territory, providing scenes that are slightly reminiscent of parts of Pink Flamingos (1972) and Serial Mom (1994), but far more wholesome. It is also a rare example of actors playing fictionalised takes of themselves that doesn’t at all feel indulgent or self-aggrandising. Farley and Scalzo let themselves be the butt of the joke, they let the narrative go the way it needs to go and take some real chances, ones that completely pay off.
It would be so easy to classify Metal Detector Maniac as another one of ‘those’ films from a crew who have established a house style. But, it is more than this (even though it doesn’t need to be). It takes that style into new places and brings new satisfactions. Though the primary drive, throughout, is character and dialogue, it does present the viewer with a gripping narrative that satisfies in its own right. The way it builds from oh-so-simple to something really quite mad, while never jumping the shark or becoming ludicrous, is a real achievement. The final act of the film has plot points that you will want to regale to others, and then deals with them in really interesting ways. Metal Detector Maniac is an imaginative film, gleefully so. It is yet another example of a group of filmmakers who recognise the constraints they are working under, and use those boundaries as a way of gleaning gold. There is scrappy charm that makes it impossible to hate but also real flair. It is a sharp comedy-thriller populated with memorable characters and a central mystery, or conflict, that becomes really compelling. That’s right, those folks at Motern have done it again, they’ve produced a work that feels comfortable, familiar and charming whilst also feeling really unique; a hell of an achievement.