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By Michael Nordine | November 7, 2010

An aardvark, as described by director Kitao Sakurai, is an oddly specific creature. It has its peculiar habits—namely, eating ants—and seldom extends itself beyond them. What Sakurai is interested in doing in his film of the same name is exploring what such a being might do were it suddenly dropped into, say, a parking lot (Sakurai’s words, not mine). But the odd mammal for which Aardvark is named never appears in the movie; instead, Sakurai’s feature has at its center a blind man named Larry who is no less habitual but far more complex. After an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting one day, Larry happens upon a jujitsu dojo and decides to start training with a charismatic teacher named Darren. His headlong decision is made easier by Darren’s immediate likability, as well as the fact that he in no way condescends to Larry. That the two characters are in fact fictionalized projections of real-life friends Larry Lewis, Jr. (whose blindness isn’t feigned) and Darren Branch lends them an almost-instant onscreen chemistry, and Aardvark is at its best when focusing its gaze on their relationship. Through these two men, Aardvark reveals itself as a film whose primary focus isn’t adaptability (as the implied metaphor of its title might suggest) but rather the ways in which strength and weakness pull us in opposing directions, as well as our unfortunate tendency to be more swayed by the latter.

Larry is the primary lens through which we are made privy to the film’s thematic underpinnings. Strange, then, that for as difficult as his circumstances are, there’s never much need to worry about him. He appears to be completely at peace with his blindness, not to mention exceptionally capable in spite of it. The moment of clarity which made him the man we meet in Aardvark occurred long before the events of the film, leaving little opportunity for Larry to grow beyond the already-admirable character that he is. With this in mind, the AA angle is a bit off-putting: it serves as little more than an expository introduction to Larry before quickly receding into the background, never to be mentioned again. Most of what we know about him comes from the speech he gives to his fellow recovering alcoholics near the beginning of the film, and his jujitsu training isn’t so much a new lease on life as it is an extension of what we’ve already seen of his persevering nature.

Aardvark can, in many ways, be regarded as the cobbling together of two semi-distinct halves. The first oftentimes feels like a documentary, no doubt because it is clearly rooted in the reality of its two protagonists’ lives; the second turns into a sort of neo-noir murder mystery/revenge drama that isn’t nearly as well-executed. (Might this have been more effective as a documentary?) The film is subdivided further by the fact that scenes within its first act often fade to black in a manner suggesting they’re meant to be viewed as separate from what is to follow, and more than one segment is devoted entirely to Darren. In this way, we are able to see not only how he fits into Larry’s life, but also how and why he is a vital part of this fictional world. Though not quite the opposite side of the same coin, Darren does occupy a different part of the spectrum. At first glance, he appears to have everything figured out: the tenets of jujitsu—which he outlines to Larry in one of the more effective and convincing monologues in recent memory—have engendered in him a fundamental humanity that makes him sympathize even with the hypothetical (or not so hypothetical, as we later see) men who would do him harm. And yet, as we soon find out, this teacher has much to learn himself. Darren proves an even more compelling character than Larry, and his early exit is thus a shame.

Which isn’t to say it doesn’t serve a purpose; it does. That Larry lays his weaknesses bare before exhibiting his strength while Darren does the opposite provides a contrast necessary to the full conveyance of Sakurai’s ideas. The problem, then, is that Larry doesn’t seem to derive strength from this ordeal—at least not the strength Darren taught him. Instead, he goes on a sort of warpath that is not only uncharacteristic, but a regression as well.

It is fitting, given the film’s treatment of the relationship between frailty and strength, that its greatest strength is also the source of its flaws: its realism. In opening the film so effectively, Aardvark‘s superior first half draws negative attention to its lesser counterpart. These early scenes are better than what follow not through any contrivance of plot, but simply because the two lead characters are inherently interesting. When Aardvark switches gears at the midway point, it’s as though Sakurai is unsure what kind of film he wants to make: part documentary, part thriller, Aardvark‘s blending of genres isn’t so much a deliberate hybridization as it is an identity crisis. Larry proves to be far more compelling in the way he moves through daily life than how he goes about rectifying an act of violence, this for the simple reason that the former is unique to him and the latter has been done countless times before. Too, his performance becomes strained in these later scenes, which ironically ends up being the best argument for him (to say nothing of the film as a whole) embodying an aardvark: he’s out of his element.

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