In her 2004 documentary In The Realms Of The Unreal, Jessica Yu illustrated the life and art of troubled loner Henry Darger while only occasionally acknowledging the impact his work had on the culture at large. In her follow-up doc, Protagonist, she illustrates the principles of Euripidean drama by recording the stories of four men: bank robber Joe Loya, German terrorist Hans-Joachim Klein, martial-arts enthusiast Mark Salzman, and "ex-gay" evangelist Mark Pierpont. Yu re-enacts some key incidents from their lives with flip-book animation and puppets in ancient Greek robes, indicating that no matter what the medium, some dramas will always play out the same way. Or at least they will if they're pre-selected and carefully edited.
By shuffling these stories together, Yu finds their connective tissue. All four men reacted against their fathers, whether by trying to be strong where their dads were weak, or striving for their attention, or making them feel guilty for years of abuse. All four men take up causes and carry them too far, whether they pass out tracts in gay bars, get involved with a kung-fu cult, or plant bombs in public spaces. And all four undergo a conversion of sorts, shedding their extremism in favor of maturity and normalcy. If Protagonist conveys one clear, compelling idea, it's that even certainty isn't certain.
Mostly, though, Protagonist offers four fairly interesting monologues, undercut by ominous music, stylistic frippery, and a structure that all but guarantees the audience will be able to predict where the stories will go. (If one interviewee talks about his change of heart, the other three are bound to fall right into line.) The film bears the mark of a real directorial talent, eager to push the documentary form in inventive directions, just like Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, and for that alone, it deserves a nod of appreciation. But while Yu is a hell of a filmmaker, her work to date has been ridiculously overdetermined. Where some documentarians approach their subjects and say, "Tell me your story," Yu seems to say, "Let me tell you what your story is."