The plot summary on the website for the Canadian thriller Peppergrass is pretty straightforward: “During a pandemic, a pregnant restaurateur tries to rob a priceless truffle from a reclusive veteran.” Watching the film, though, the story is a bit less forthright. There are elements of all the major plot points – pandemic, truffles, reclusive veteran – but they never tie together cohesively enough to give the story the gut punch it’s aiming for.
Directed by Steven Garbas and Chantelle Han (who also plays the lead), Peppergrass opens with the offsetting image of a man wearing a Mexican Lucha wrestling mask lying dead on a restaurant floor. Only he’s not dead. And he’s not a wrestler. He’s Morris (Charles Boyland), the bartender at the restaurant, taking a nap on the floor while waiting for the chef/owner, Eula (Han), to arrive. They’re not going to open for business; they’re going on a mission that will change their lives forever.
We quickly learn that the gag of the body on the floor is not the only game the directors play with their audience. Through the conversation between Morris and Eula, we piece together that there is a pandemic, the restaurant is failing, and they need to visit a friend of Eula’s dead grandfather to make everything right. At least as far as the business is concerned. The dialogue captures the conversation of two people who know each other well and already know their plan well enough that they don’t have to spell out what will happen next. Good for them but bad for the audience trying to piece it all together.
The unlikely pair drive out into the deep country to find the reclusive veteran’s house; Along the way, Eula trolls the internet looking for the latest prices of truffles, and there is some vague conversation about them getting some truffles – including a super rare and expensive white truffle – from the guy they are going to see. They eventually locate the guy, and for a few minutes, Peppergrass starts to jell into the story you can follow. The three gather in the kitchen of the guy’s home to talk truffle. Morris starts acting like a jerk, and things go very badly and bloodily for all concerned. Injured but still able to walk, unlike the other two, Eula sets off to get help.
She does that for the next hour of the movie, too, although it sure didn’t seem like the reclusive guy’s house was that far off the main road when they first got there. She stumbles through the woods for days and even crosses a few rivers before returning to…the house she just left. She has a few adventures, including eating a plant that makes her puke and meeting a weird consumptive survivalist dressed in a ghillie suit and a full-face painter’s mask. She learns she is too far from help and decides to return and face her problems alone. She also gets to talk to the coughing, ghillie suit guy and explain what the movie title means to the audience.
The final scenes of Peppergrass are the most effective. The directors and cinematographer Grant Cooper use imagery and pacing to add an edge to the climax sorely missing from most of the movie. The ultimate ending is unexpected and compelling but could have been much more effective if the movie didn’t meander so much in the middle.
While the plot has problems, there can be nothing but praise for the two leads in Peppergrass. Boyland does a great job of making Morris a lovable jerk. He makes some horrible choices, including the one that sets all the bad juju in motion, but he’s still sympathetic, if never really lovable.
And the way Han goes through the arduous physical demands of the film while co-directing is nothing short of amazing. She also gives a compelling dramatic performance, particularly in the scenes where it’s just her out in the wilderness. You still may have trouble connecting all the dots as to why she is out there in the first place, but Han makes you forget all that waiting to make sure she gets out alive.
- John Black, PEPPERGRASS