Late one night, Jeremy wanders into a local copy shop located in the middle of nowhere, wanting to duplicate posters for his missing cat. With its isolation and its strange cast of characters, the copy shop has an otherworldly feel, like a pocket of the space-time continuum that contemporary life has forgotten altogether.
Directed to one of the patented “relaxation and duplication machines,” he cuts his finger on the device — and soon the machine works on him, almost hypnotizing him with its strangely soothing images and sounds. But he soon gets a horrific glimpse of what he might become if he never leaves, and must take action to avoid his fate.
Writer-director Emma Debany’s surreal comedy short works like a strange dream, seemingly drifting from moment to moment until it builds to a memorable epiphany. Remarkably quiet for a comedy, the story relies on attention to detail, pacing and its sound design to generate its singular mix of goofball surrealism, fantasy and even suspense.
The narrative itself is slim, with the action limited to a simple task and setting, and it also eschews the conventional building-up of character and relationships to draw intrigue. We don’t know much about the place or about Jeremy — though we know he’s lost his cat and is distressed by this. As a result, the audience feels they’ve wandered into someone else’s mysterious dream.
However, the filmmaking is able to conjure a hypnotic atmosphere that hooks viewers with its weirdness and eccentric humor. The images are often either remarkably spare and isolated in feel or playful and off-kilter, playing with pools of harsh, even garish light and spotlighting eccentric flourishes in the set design. Camera angles are often skewed, keeping us off-balanced as well.
The sound also contributes to the film’s feeling of a “waking dream.” The place itself is uneasily quiet — except for the strangely detached interactions with both man and machine — but the air is filled with oddly soothing, airless Muzak playing in the background.
In many places, the short feels like the strange mating of American filmmaking mavericks like David Lynch and the Coen Brothers. It wouldn’t be out of place, for example, if a strange character broke into dance or if a ludicrous yet atrocious murder occurred during the short. But the film’s style is distinctive from these comparisons, with a fascination with the lo-fi, discarded and disposable, and a genuine sense of deadpan fun. When the short takes a turn towards what can only be described as existential horror near the end, as the main character confronts his potential fate, its climax and conclusion ruptures the quaint dreamlike atmosphere and becomes something genuinely unsettling — but also oddly hopeful and inspiring.
It’s tempting to overlay symbolism over the indelible images, sounds and moments found in “Steve’s Kinkoes,” and very often it does feel like a peculiar meditation on stasis, in which a lost soul can choose to either anesthetize their pain with escapism or travel into their own darkness to confront their greatest fears and move on. But it also humorously captures the genuinely strange, almost disembodied feeling of waking and working when everyone else in the world is asleep, when lights are just a little too harsh for the eyes and sounds take on a strange texture that eludes observation during the hustle and bustle of daytime. Time and the senses act strangely in the middle of the night, and you’ll never know what you might just encounter in all that darkness.