Cast your mind back to 2016, and you may recall the US being plagued by clowns. It’s a strange sentence to write and a stranger time to look back on. Across the US, as a reality TV star settled into his new role as President, people were dressing up as gaudy, multi-colour wigged buffoons and terrorising men, women and children. What a time to be alive.
To some, there was a direct correlation between this peculiar meme and the emergence of a 65-year-old retiree one year earlier. Interviewed on the news, wearing a polka dot jumpsuit and a rubber clown mask, ‘Wrinkles the Clown’ said he was charging parents to help them scare the bejesus out of their kids. And apparently, business was good.
Wrinkles the Clown, directed and co-written by Michael Beach Nichols (Welcome to Leith), attempts to explore what makes a man choose to dress up like a clown for the torment of children, while looking at the more significant theme of how a simple – and admittedly creepy – idea can latch on to the public conscience. It’s a film that splinters off into pop culture, memes and psychology.
“You want Wrinkles? You’re gonna get Wrinkles,” grumbles a Rick Sanchez-sounding old man, whose entire life, including his clown business, can be found in a campervan. He is our gateway to the Wrinkles legend, taking us around his stomping ground of Florida where drunk people seem genuinely pleased to have a superhero of sorts in their neighbourhood. Waxing philosophically about his life, Wrinkles doesn’t seem to really understand the reaction to his late-in-life career path. And as we listen to the voicemails he regularly receives it can be hard not to agree with him. Sure, the very idea of a stranger being given access to people’s homes so he can pop out from underneath beds makes the flesh crawl. And yet, does that warrant the death threats he gets from both adults and children?
Not content with Florida, Nichols also takes his documentary on the road to meet people who have never actually hired Wrinkles, but have been impacted by him in some way. As well as children who hope to grow up to be like him (no, really), we meet parents who think nothing of using Wrinkles as an idea to discipline their kids. In a documentary that allows its subject to recreate children’s worst fears about him – including painting the walls with blood – it’s the parents who are most concerning. Voicemails of children crying in terror, while parents shout into the phone for Wrinkles to ‘sort out these f*ckers’ is not something easily forgotten and says more about them than the clown himself.
It needs to be said that there’s a knowingness to Wrinkles that extends beyond the aforementioned re-enactments. Nichols gives the audience a peek behind the mask, and what we’re offered will not be to everyone’s taste. Despite unlimited access to his subject, Nichols keeps his audience at arm’s length and often he doesn’t focus on him at all. In a way, Wrinkles shares the same space as Robert Green’s Kate Plays Christine and Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop, blurring the line between fact and fiction. Which makes complete sense. In an age where children can spread urban myths through YouTube quicker than in a school playground, it’s no surprise that Wrinkles has become something much more than even he could have imagined. From being interviewed on the news to rubbing shoulders with the likes of John Wayne Gacy and Bloody Mary, it’s obviously been quite a journey for the clown.
A fascinating documentary that will infuriate some, Wrinkles, like Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s Catfish, is best seen without knowing too much beforehand. Coulrophobes need not apply.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★★☆
‘Wrinkles the Clown’ will be in limited Australian cinemas for 1 Night Only on Friday December 13.