Academia takes no prisoners, and neither does David Liban’s award-winning feature film Publish or Perish.
With its catchy title and punchy premise, there’s no doubt that Liban’s feature is a darkly comical success. Stunning cinematography (Trevr Merchant), chaotic characters, and grounded storytelling draw viewers in and keep them tethered to this absurd story of a seemingly harmless English professor unintentionally out for blood.
The film follows Jim Bowden (Timothy McCracken), a diligent English professor about to get what he deserves: tenure with a Capital T. However, when one student dies at his hands and another falsely accuses him of misconduct, his chances of achieving that lifelong dream are threatened. As his relationship with the university Dean (James Shanklin) sours and a detective (Mark Wilson) comes knocking, Bowden will do what’s necessary to finally walk through the glowing doors of academia with tenure in his hands.
What is perhaps so intriguing about Liban’s film is its no holds barred protagonist. Jim Bowden is by no means a good person, and he’s undoubtedly the center of his own universe. Even if it means hurting his daughter Amy (Bonnie Utter) or his daughter’s boyfriend (Nick James) in the process, he’ll stop at nothing to get what he wants. It’s hard to imagine that an unlikeable main character would steal the show, but actor McCracken certainly makes it easy.
Outside of this, though, the film’s use of stylized visual gags is a clear selling point. As the film fades in, Bowden walks down a long corridor towards a steel door locked with chains and marked by the word “Academia.” Hazy golden light surrounds him as he stares with both awe and desire in his eyes, and we are just as enchanted as he is. More than impressive, it’s an opening shot that tells us everything we need to know, from character to plot to style. But the visuals don’t stop here. As the film continues on, Bowden’s trail of death is reanimated, and the body of the student he’s killed in his fight for tenure comes back to haunt him. With a pale face and blood-soaked hair, he lurks in Bowden’s car and outside of his classroom, constantly reminding him of what he’s done – and what he must be willing to do to achieve his dream.
But ghosts are just one example of the film’s stellar black humor. Overall, the film’s premise is inherently funny, and as the story plods along we can’t help but laugh at the almost childish squabble between Dean Crawley and Bowden, or Bowden’s awkward attempt at purchasing new tires from a brainless junkyard owner. More than this, with McCracken at the helm, Bowden’s deadpan gaze, hard-bitten comedy, and occasional bursts of melodrama help make the film’s humor extremely engaging. With every attempt at cleaning up his mess, Bowden takes another spill, keeping the audience in good spirits and the film hurtling towards a comedic climax.
Of course, all of these elements gravitate around a story that is itself a strong point. From Amy’s nude film to Dean Crawley’s affair with his assistant Emily (Katie Michels), Liban’s script does well to weave various threads of the plot together in a way that’s both realistic and satisfying. The stakes only get higher as momentum picks up, and all of the individual highs and lows of multiple characters crash together in the end leaving nothing behind.
As we barrel towards a potentially disastrous ending, we can’t help but root for the accidentally homicidal professor. Two months after his scramble for tenure, the film wraps up with an extremely satisfying—and hilarious—bang, and we’re left wondering if despite everything he’s done, maybe he really does deserve tenure.