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Hands That Bind Director Kyle Armstrong Was Born to Make Movies

Stunning prairie gothic film announces a major Canadian talent.

by Maggie McPhee

Kyle Armstrong grew up on a farm in rural Alberta. Against all odds, in that vast and empty prairie land, he nurtured a fascination with cinema. “I was really drawn to film for some reason,” he tells RANGE from his home in Edmonton. “And I wasn’t exposed to it very much.” He vividly remembers the closet in which his parents stored their Super 8 camera, and his wide-eyed wonder at the projector that lit up their living room. He frequented a video store some 35 miles away and by the time he was a teenager he was knee-deep in Scorcese and Tarantino. 

Director Kyle Armstrong on set.

Armstrong began experimenting with the form, cutting, scratching and dying archival celluloid and original footage. A chance encounter with Guy Maddin in the late aughts led to his working as a deputised director on the Canadian icon’s Seances project. He quit his day job and plunged into the exhilarating unknown. 

“I showed up not knowing much about narrative filmmaking, I had mostly just been messing around with film myself,” he shares. “It was one of my first opportunities to actually direct and work with other human beings on a film crew. And I was doing a fair amount of bluffing that I knew what I was doing when I really didn’t. But everyone was so nice and generous and kind that I don’t think it would have mattered anyway.” 

Armstrong’s circuitous route into filmmaking has come full circle. His shorts and features retrace his roots, exploring rural environments, farming families, and the relationships that crisscross these open landscapes dense with significance. He even shot his sophomore film, Hands That Bind, in his hometown.

The prairie gothic follows Andy (Paul Sparks, Physical), a hired farmhand, whose tightly-wound life unravels when his boss’ son Dirk (Landon Liboiron) returns to claim his birthright, the very house Andy hoped to secure for his wife (Susan Kent) and kids. It’s 1981 and hypermasculinity is at a boiling point. But uncertainties begin creeping into this world of rigid binaries. Mutilated cows appear hanging from trees, orbs of light hover on the horizon, a hitchhiker drowns in a shallow bog. Paranoia seeps into the underbelly, exposing a darkness that was there all along. Those binaries collapse under their shaky foundation. 

“I’m really interested in the vast open spaces, but they can be frightening. I wanted to show a character encountering a world that wasn’t making sense to them anymore, and to watch their response,” says Armstrong. “It was a matter of writing from a place and a culture that I understood well and using that to convey what I think are larger, broader societal issues.” 

“Perhaps it’s a story of emotionally unavailable men and masculinity and people strongly adhering to the sense of what they think masculinity is and should be and yet suffering in silence,” he continues. “I saw a fair amount of that in my rural upbringing. There’s a tendency in those communities that men are supposed to be a particular kind of way. And in doing so, really limit their opportunity for better human connection.” 

Hands That Bind leaves its uncertainties unresolved. Like Tarkovsky’s Stalker or a knotty poem, Armstrong opens more doors than he closes, inviting each viewer to chart their own course through the labyrinth, involving them until they’re a part of the architecture, so that his story lives on in their cells. It’s a degree of craft that earned him the 2022 Edmonton Film Prize, and long-standing relationships with other greats of the age, Will Oldham, who plays a scene-stealing barkeep, and Jim O’Rourke, whose dissonant and expansive score threads like a filament through the film.   

“I can’t draw, I can’t paint. I have very little technical ability in terms of being able to create images in that way. But for some reason, I can think about things in terms of cinematography and photography very easily,” Armstrong says. “I think that this is something that I’m naturally inclined towards. So I’m grateful for a chance to be able to work in it.”

A scene from Hands That Bind (Courtesy Mongrel Media)

In keeping with his piecemeal development as a filmmaker, Hands That Bind instantiates Armstrong’s first time using a script. He made his debut feature, Until First Light, without writing one word. “I think it was insane to do so and I’m really glad that I did and I hope to make another film like that someday,” he says. “But I also learned so much through that experience of making a film without a script, that there is great value in knowing what you’re going to make. Having a really good map will probably get you to your end destination faster than charting your course by the stars or by the seat of your pants.” 

Armstrong approached the script as a short story. Despite doubting his ability to craft dialogue, his previous editor Hans Olson — who has worked with Tasha Hubbard and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers — read the rough draft and told him to keep trucking. 

“And that was a really big moment for me to feel some confidence that I could actually write words for people to say,” shares Armstrong. “And oddly enough, when I started sharing the script with actors, that was the number one reason that I was able to get such great talent on such a small budget: the actors really loved the writing.” 

Elsewhere, encouragement from producer Blake McWilliam nudged him to seek great performers. And despite never having a film picked up by distributors, Armstrong attracted heavyweights, including two-time Oscar nominee Bruce Dern, who plays a particularly powerful role as a lonesome farmer. “When you have actors come to your set to make the film and you are confident that they are there because they want to be there and because they believe in the project, it just gives you all the confidence in the world to go and make the movie that you want to make,” says Armstrong.

At first, Armstrong brought film to the farm. Now, he’s bringing the farm to film. He’s cultivated his lifelong passion largely in solitude, endowing it with the weight of an artist devoted to their medium. That weight, like a gravitational pull, has drawn collaborators of the highest calibre. Hands That Bind, his first work to receive a theatrical release, inaugurates the oeuvre of a new Canadian auteur.

Hands That Bind opens Nov. 3 in Toronto at Scotiabank Theatre and Nov. 24 in Edmonton at Metro Cinema. It is also available now on VOD.