Exciting documentary is telling cautionary tale
How far will you go to make your point? If wronged, what would you do to take your revenge? Welder and muffler repair expert, Marvin Heemeyer went to great extremes to, in his mind, make things right.
Overshadowed by the death of our 40th President, Ronald Reagan, the events of the day before, on June 4, 2004, in the little town of Grandy, Colorado, made worldwide news. Many will remember the tale of what was dubbed the “Killdozer.” But as the story quickly faded from the headlines, few of us have any real understanding of why the rampage happened.
Director Paul Solet (see 2009’s “Grace” and 2017’s “Bullet Head”) makes his documentary feature debut with an exacting debriefing that recreates the tragic events. Using his narrative filmmaking chops, Solet not only builds an armored dozer, putting it through its paces, but he gives key figures a voice, bringing the sorrowful story to life.
Initially, I was concerned that the viewpoint was going to lean too far in the direction of the troubled Heemeyer. But as the story unfolds, Solet’s even-handed telling provides everyone involved a chance to give their side. It’s remarkably touching, sad, and revealing. This movie is a tale of men who work with their calloused, grease infused hands, and despite vast differences, it’s the work, the hard, dangerous, painful work that unites them.
Solet makes expert use of witnesses who relay the facts while openly talking about their emotions. And we hear from Heemeyer himself, who made audiotapes before his rampage. What is very telling is how the people most affected by Heemeyer’s actions try to understand his motivations. They realize the importance of sharing this story. Interviews with owners of an excavation company, for example, show us that they respected Heemeyer’s welding abilities and the fact that he, like them, took the often dirty, hands-on approach.
Time is taken to lay out a historical sketch of Heemeyer, interviewing his girlfriend, his close buddies, and people who used the man’s welding talents. We learn that Heemeyer settled in Granby even though he had no family or prior connections to the town. He never had children, and his hobby was snowmobiling.
But it was Heemeyer’s devotion to growing his muffler repair business that caused him to bump heads with long-time residents. A festering lawsuit with the city over sewerage didn’t go his way, leaving Heemeyer feeling that he was a wronged-man. And perhaps he was, but what he did in response to his loss could never be justified. The detachment from reality that this man went through is striking.
A handsomely made film, “Tread” plays out like a gritty, Hollywood thriller. Drawing on his horror and science fiction background, Solet was a writer on National Geographic’s well-received series “Mars,” the director crafts a highly entertaining non-fiction movie. In keeping with the documentary tradition that started with Robert J. Flaherty’s 1922 classic “Nanook of the North,” Solet recreates past events in exacting detail. And it deepens the fascination, as we see an actor playing Heemeyer as he uses his welding machine and descends into madness.
“Tread” is an undeniable cautionary tale that should give all of us pause. When pushed, a man can reach a breaking point, bad things can and do happen. The moral compass is reversed. And only through trying to make sense of the chaos can we prevent another rampage, save lives, and save ourselves too. Listening and patience should be vital guiding principles.