Hairy Situation

Melissa Anderson on Letters from the Big Man

Christopher Munch, Letters from the Big Man, 2011, still from a color film in 35 mm, 115 minutes.

SHORTLY AFTER I stopped believing in the tooth fairy, I became obsessed with Bigfoot, writing a book report on the creature in fourth grade—an academic exercise that made it hard for me to fall asleep, spooked as I was by the infamous still of Sasquatch in midstride from the 1967 Patterson-Gimlin film. Though one character in writer-director Christopher Munch’s fascinatingly sincere Letters from the Big Man is similarly traumatized by a childhood encounter with the hairy biped, the Sasquatch presented here is a gentle creature, a dream man of sorts for protagonist Sarah Smith (Lily Rabe).

A former employee of the Forest Service, Sarah, whose live-in relationship has just ended, takes a contract assignment in southwestern Oregon to test stream water in a burn zone. She delights in her solitude and in living off the grid, a self-sufficient nature worshipper who addresses the pesky insects biting into her flesh as her “mosquito brothers and sisters.” Strange, unidentifiable sounds in the woods that seem to follow her every move, though, are making her feel uneasy. Sarah soon realizes she has nothing to fear; Bigfoot (Isaac Singleton Jr. in a large, furry bodysuit) has been tracking her but offering messages of love. “Dear One, only with your open heart will you know us,” begins one epistle, read by an offscreen voice. “I wish I had a man like you,” Sarah calls out to the trees after taking to her cabin an origami bird left for her by Sasquatch.

Munch’s fifth film in twenty years, Letters from the Big Man, like its predecessors, has the courage of its own sweetly far-out convictions. The director has a particular interest in unconventional romances: His debut, The Hours and Times (1991), is a graceful imagining of a sex-charged night between Brian Epstein and John Lennon in a Barcelona hotel room. Harry and Max (2004), a less successful exploration of homophilic leanings among pop stars, traces the incestuous relationship between two brothers who were once boy-band idols (imagine an episode of Behind the Music scripted by Dennis Cooper).

Though it gets sidetracked by a conspiracy-theory plot thread, in which an environmental activist Sarah meets (and later sleeps with) becomes convinced that a nefarious military organization is going to capture and kill Bigfoot for infrasonic research, Letters from the Big Man sustains its deeply felt love of nature’s mystery—and majesty. Working with his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Rob Sweeney, Munch captures extraordinary bursts of Pacific Northwest sun, shining down on the Edenic ecosystem. Sarah’s love of the apelike being in the woods is an expression of her humility, of her appreciation for the vastness enveloping her. “I can feel you nearby. Thank you for being here,” Sarah says to her not-quite-visible pen pal. Her gratitude is wholly believable, even touching, especially when we learn that Bigfoot and his friends want only to save us from ourselves. Munch has made a film that, in lesser hands, would have been little more than Old Joy meets Trog.

Letters from the Big Man opens November 11 at the IFC Center in New York.