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First run Theater cinema

In his first documentary feature, Paul Solet (director of genre films like Bullet Head, Dark Summer, and Grace) brings to the screen the story of Marvin Heemeyer and the town on which he sought revenge in 2004. Heemeyer was a well-liked business owner, master welder, and snowmobile enthusiast living in a small town at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. But when he got pushed to his breaking point by what he perceived as persecution by the people who run the town, he slowly and meticulously planned his revenge. Utilizing his welding skills, he spent a year and a half quietly fortifying a giant bulldozer with thirty tons of steel and concrete and then set out to wreak havoc on those he believed had wronged him. 

Utilizing a blend of archival footage, staged-reenactments, and clips from audio cassettes Heemeyer recorded before embarking on his mission of carefully selected rampage—as well as extensive interviews with his buddies, his former girlfriend, and most of the folks he viewed as enemies—Solet digs deep into the mind of a man pushed to the limits by an escalating series of petty injustices (real and imagined). At first, there doesn’t seem to be enough material for a feature-length documentary. The redundant nature of what Heemeyer says on the tapes and what the various interviewees tell us, as well as the film’s reliance on reenactments, makes you think this might have worked much better as a short. But long before we see any scenes of Heemeyer’s destructive , we come to understand how well Solet has structured this narrative.

We spend most of the film’s first third identifying with Heemeyer (only seen in photographs) and his frustrations with the local government and what he describes as “the good ol’ boys” who control or own everything in his town. Most audiences will easily sympathize with many of his feelings and attitudes, as most of us have dealt with similar frustrations on one level or another. It’s not until Heemeyer starts planning his revenge and justifying his planned actions as being the will of God, that we come to see how dangerously unhinged this guy was. It takes a special kind of madness to spend a year and a half carefully and patiently working towards a kind of destructive revenge the will ultimately end in the death of the revenge taker. And each time Heemeyer isn’t caught, he justifies it as proof that he’s doing God’s will. 

Solet avoids psychoanalyzing his main character or pronouncing judgment on any of the folks involved in this story. Rather, he lets everyone’s own words speak for themselves in ways that in no way feel manipulated to suit an agenda. This approach may feel a bit repetitive at first, but it pays off. So do the reenactments. I’m not a fan of documentaries that employ actors to stage versions of events where no archival footage is available. I usually consider this a lazy technique that blurs the line between reportage and dramatic interpretation in uninteresting, and sometimes irresponsible ways. It always makes me wonder why the filmmakers didn’t just adapt the story into a narrative feature—the way Richard Linklater brilliantly took the story of Bernie Tiede and made it into a kind of true-crime mockumentary in 2011’s Bernie

But Tread is one of the few recent documentaries to utilize reenactments in ways that actually enhance the storytelling rather than just awkwardly highlight what’s missing from it. [Another recent example is William Kirkley’s Orange Sunshine (2016)]. By the time the filmmakers deliver a recreation of the massive fortified dozer and shoot it from angles that convey its power and impenetrability, we’re fully prepared for what we see. Solet, director of photography Zoran Popovic, and editor Darrin Roberts are able to seamlessly blend their staged material with archival news and police footage from the actual event in a way that viewers are always able to differentiate but never become distracted by, which is quite a feat. 

The lengthy climactic rampage comes across as responsible documentary filmmaking with the power of a narrative fiction film. The amped-up visuals also provide an extra layer of subtext to the movie. Since Heemeyer’s tank-like, armed and armored vehicle looks like something out of a Mad Max movie, and since most of Heemeyer’s narrative aligns perfectly with the revenge-plot tropes of nearly all Hollywood and exploitation pictures about men who take the law into their own hands after getting pushed to their breaking points by injustice, Tread provides subtle commentary on violent individuals that society often elevate to heroic status, as well as how and why this occurs. Yet nothing about this movie comes off as didactic or preachy. There are certainly conclusions to be drawn about how men can be overtaken by their anger, and how people of all viewpoints can become dangerous when their perspectives get narrowed to a point where there is no room for anyone else’s interpretation of events. But Tread avoids making simplistic arguments or descending into political rhetoric. It is a straightforward and solid telling of a unique, fascinating, and illustrative true story.

Twitter Capsule:
Fascinating story of the destructive revenge Marvin Heemeyer took on his small town is a rare documentary to effectively utilize staged reenactments in ways that enhance the storytelling rather than just awkwardly highlighting what’s missing from it.

Directed by Paul Solet
Produced by Doug Liman, Sean M. Stuart, Jim Reeve, Glen Zipper, David Bartis, Robert A. Halmi, Gene Klein, Victor Shapiro, and Raphael Swann

Written by Paul Solet

With: Patrick Brower, Glenn Trainor, Casey Farrell, Trisha Macdonald, Stuart Spencer, Larry Thompson, and Gary Thompson

Cinematography: Zoran Popovic
Editing: Darrin Roberts
Music: Austin Wintory

Runtime: 89 min
Release Date: 08 March 2019
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1