Up until this week, the most prominent welder in film memory was Jennifer Beals’ Alex in Flashdance, but we can safely say Alex never used her welding for evil in order to devastate an entire town. Marvin Heemeyer, the man at the center of the new documentary Tread (currently streaming on Netflix), did just that and, apologies to Beals’s cinematic legacy, Heemeyer is likely to become the film protagonist we most associate with the profession.
It’s clear why Tread, which became one of Netflix’s biggest hits over the weekend, is still trending in the Netflix Top 10. With an incredible true-crime backstory —you might be reminded of Evil Genius— a volatile main character who commits a heinous act of revenge, and a narrative that shifts so we don’t know who we can trust, Tread is the kind of film that rivets viewers and makes conspiracy theorists of all of us. Released on July 29th, Tread is the story of Heemeyer who, after living in Granby, Colorado for over a decade, inflicted massive physical destruction on his small town when he took a bulldozer that he spent a year secretly fortifying with 30 tons of steel and concrete, loaded it with automatic weapons and rifles and, with a list of targets in his pocket, levelled everything in his path. When the rampage ended, Heemeyer killed himself.
What makes the documentary all the more intriguing are the recordings Heemeyer left behind, which he started making in the years before his rampage, on which he explained his “righteous anger” at the town bureaucrats who created personal and professional obstacles for him. The case against several men in town is made by Heemeyer throughout the first act of the film. These local town officials, he explained on the tapes, are a group of good old boys, many coming from families with rich local legacies, but what’s clear — from Heemeyer’s perspective — is that these were men whose friendships and business relationships with one another were more powerful than actual law. These city councilors made it impossible for Heemeyer, considered an outsider for not having lived in Granby long, to continue to run his business, costing him hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines and legal fees, destroying his livelihood and humiliating him. Heemeyer sets himself up so we feel sympathetic, he’s a good man done wrong. Maybe because we’re used to those who govern acting in their own best interests, we believe everything he says and feel for this man who has lost everything he worked for, a victim of red tape. Until we hear the other side of the story.
One by one, each person in the community that Heemeyer felt had wronged him speaks up, and interview by interview, we start to doubt his accusations against them. “Marv’s assumption that there was this group of community leaders that would get together at the coffee shop each morning and conspire about to keep Marv from moving forward because he was the new guy was patently untrue,” says Patrick Brower, a local news reporter who was also one of Heemeyer’s targets. For every grievance, there is a logical rebuttal, proof that Heemeyer’s claims have no basis in fact, or that he willfully overlooked any olive branches offered to him.
The final third of the film breathtakingly depicts June 4, 2004, the day that Heemeyer finally got his revenge. “I knew God wanted me to do it,” he says on tape, explaining the peace he felt when he got the divine inspiration for how he would demolish his town. Over the course of a year, Heemeyer hid in a shed, sleeping during the day and forging a vehicle of mass destruction, carrying a list of everyone he planned to exact revenge on. Through reenactments and real-life footage, as well as interviews with those who tried to stop him, we see just how powerless everyone was as he destroyed their town building by building, attempting to shoot anyone in his way.
Tread is a tragic American story of a man who sought a promising future and became consumed by everyone that got in his way. And just as American is the epilogue, in which one of Heemeyer’s biggest adversaries and targets, Larry Thompson, sums up the situation: “This made this town a ton of money. A ton of money.”
Liz Kocan is a pop culture writer living in Brooklyn. Her biggest claim to fame is the time she won on the game show Chain Reaction.
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