Granby, Colorado feels like the sort of small town you’d find in every state across America.
Industrious, hardworking, the kind of place where neighbors know all the scuttlebutt within a few hours and there’s hardly a stranger because everyone is on a first name basis.
The fact that the events depicted in director Paul Solet’s gripping documentary “Tread” could plausibly happen in any small town are frightening, but like a train wreck you can’t look away from, what happened on June 4, 2004 is a mesmerizing display of anarchic chaos viewers will want to see more of just to figure out how one man pulled it off.
At the center of the documentary is Marvin Heemeyer, an Air Force veteran more than capable with a welding iron and the owner of Granby’s muffler shop, which he purchased at auction for a remarkably low sum of money only to find himself in legal battle with government officials and a rival business owner over water and sewer connections, property easements and fines.
It’s clear from the outset where “Tread” is heading; the opening preamble makes clear Heemeyer’s destructive intent with a fortified bulldozer causing chaos and massive property damage throughout the town.
But Solet also reveals how things escalated to that point and Heemeyer’s amazement that he could keep his plot a secret in a notoriously nosy small town.
A series of audio tapes recorded by Heemeyer give the audience a unique perspective into the changing mentality the former military serviceman had as he felt gradually separated from the outside world by political actors out to get him.
Solet perfectly weaves Heemeyer into the documentary’s narrative, overlaying his prerecorded dialogue over reenactments of key moments to give context and allow viewers inside the mind of the man silently being portrayed on screen.
Heemeyer is portrayed by actor Robert Fleet, usually from behind and framed like a specter haunting the film and foreshadowing the carnage of steel to come. The reenactments are largely silent and brilliantly captured by cinematographer Zoran Popovic with a dynamic visual style that bursts off the screen.
Much of the film’s first act centers around city politics as Heemeyer does battle with Granby water commissioners and the town council over his muffler shop and the adjacent land slated to be a concrete batch plant.
For a while, “Tread” makes a compelling case to draw viewers to Heemeyer’s side as the audio tapes explain how his rights were being infringed upon by malicious government officials working in conjunction with the concrete plant.
But though Solet never truly discusses mental illness as a potential reason for Heemeyer’s subsequent actions, the documentary morphs over its second and third act to a more bombastic, dramatic style in keeping with Heemeyer’s increasingly paranoid ramblings.
Reenactments of the buildup are solid throughout, but it’s in the third act as Heemeyer starts the engine and begins his rampage that Solet’s best directorial work really shines.
Unable to rely on archival news footage or police cameras, “Tread” designs action sequences that replicate the creation of Heemeyer’s destructive bulldozer and its initial assault on property across the small Colorado town.
The film debuted at the 2019 South by Southwest Film Festival before a limited theatrical run in February 2020. “Tread” launched on Netflix this past week and is certain to be among the streaming service’s more popular documentary titles, seamlessly fitting in the same mold of hit docuseries like “Tiger King” and “Making A Murderer” that follow eccentric men, government conspiracy theories and outlandishly true stories to compel audiences to watch every second over and over again.
An alluring look at a man past his breaking point, small town politics and bizarre, unforgettable crime, “Tread” is a mesmerizing 90-minute thrill ride that pushes the limits of conventional documentary filmmaking – often crossing the line to traditional fictional narrative – in order to keep viewers on the edge of their seats for the mayhem they know is inevitable.