Monday, November 15, 2010

Another Hal Hartley Double Feature: Simple Men (1992) and Trust (1990)

Yup, that's right: "Another". One of my first posts was for a Hartley double feature, and I'm ashamed it's taken me this long to have another one since he's one of my favorite filmmakers. After taking in his latest short films, I was keen on just re-watching all of his features, so on my day off I took in two that are in my own movie collection. His films always go well together, connected by actors, musical style, and punchy dialogue, so it had a nice flow.

First we have Simple Men: When brothers Bill (Robert John Burke) and Dennis (Bill Sage) find out that their activist father, a former professional baseball player, has escaped custody after his arrest for a homicidal bombing that took place decades ago, they decide to track him down in Long Island. After reaching a dead end in their search, they take refuge at a bar run by Kate (Karen Sillas), who's recently taken in a mysterious Romanian named Elina (Elina Löwensohn). Bill has his eye on Kate and wants to stick around, while Dennis is convinced Elina somehow knows their dad and is intent on getting information out of her. Then they all dance for a while, and Martin Donovan is there. As is Bus Driver Stu from Pete and Pete. Radness.

This isn't my favorite Hartley film, but it has really grown on me with repeat viewings. It helps that I am ridiculously attracted to Bill Sage (especially in those glasses- swoon!), but it honestly is a pretty cool movie. It's a typical "brothers with daddy issues" premise turned on end thanks to the filmmaker's trademark oddball characterization and ambiguous dialogue. No one's intentions or motivations are ever entirely clear, and the plot never moves in an anticipated direction- there's always some surprise appearance or event to keep things off-kilter. It also has a kick-ass soundtrack from Hartley and Yo La Tengo and one of my favorite musical moments ever caught on film. The script gets a little weird towards the end with the father's activist stuff, but by that time I'm so interested in the characters that it doesn't matter much. Good movie. The end.


Download "Kool Thing" by Sonic Youth

Next up was Trust, a movie that makes me filled with sighs in the good kid of way. The much-missed Adrienne Shelly stars as Maria, a pregnant teenager who inadvertently kills her father, loses her boyfriend, drops out of school, and is kicked out of her house on the same day. Twentysomething computer repair person Matthew (Martin Donovan) lets her stay at his house, but she quickly discovers that he is physically and emotionally abused by his demanding father (John MacKay). She drags him back to her house, where she becomes a slave to her widowed mother (Merritt Nelson) and attempts to atone for her mistakes while Matthew tries to find a way to get them away from both of their families.

This is one of my favorite movies in general, and remains my favorite Hartley film. It was the first I ever saw from the director, as part of an "American Independent Cinema" course I took one summer in high school. That class really helped open my eyes to what film in general had to offer, and at the time Trust was a kind of movie I'd never seen before. It's only Hartley's second feature- he decided to make it solely for the opportunity to work again with Adrienne Shelly, who'd just starred in his first film The Unbelievable Truth. She is a talented and likable actress, heartbreakingly embodying this young girl who suddenly realizes how naive and selfish she is, and tirelessly works to make up for it. I love how she takes on Matthew's mother's old dress; it becomes a uniform of sorts, physically marking her inner transformation. She starts off as a seemingly simple character but is quickly revealed to be unexpectedly complex.

Of course, the other performances are excellent as well, characterized by Hartley's stilted and over-choreographed direction that serves to highlight each word of dialogue in a theatrical manner. Donovan is stern and troubled, Merritt Nelson is intense and creepy as Maria's controlling mother, and John MacKay is oddly terrifying as Matthew's awful father. Many other Hartley regulars- including a not-yet-famous Edie Falco- make appearances, making for a comfortable familiarity I've come to associate with his body of work. His actors shift in and out of drama and comedy, resulting in a film that makes me laugh as much as it depresses me. Their actions are intentionally over the top and exaggerated, with a wonderful self-awareness that heightens the impact of the quick, snippy dialogue.

I love this movie so much. Maybe some day I'll do a more in-depth review but for now just know that it is a seriously excellent, addictive film that moves me deeply every time I see it. The quirky chemistry between Donovan and Shelly perfectly plays off the intense performances of the supporting cast, and the goofy jokes punctuated by insightful dramatic monologues make for a memorable, complex script. Plus it's got a great, early-90's lo-fi grittiness to it all that appeals to me. I can't believe it hasn't been released on DVD (I'm still enjoying my secondhand VHS copy), but I'm hoping his company Possible Films will get to it. Luckily it's on netflix instant.



  1. Great reviews, Alex! Huge Hal Hartley fan as well. My VHS copies of these flicks are not holding up as well as they use to. Cannot wait to read your thoughts on Amateur and Flirt.

  2. You have inspired me to do my own Hartley double feature, pronto.

  3. CS: Thanks! I haven't seen Amateur in years so it's due for a rewatch, and I have not been able to get my hands on Flirt at all! It's one of two Hartley films I haven't yet seen (the other is No Such Thing, and coming from netflix soonish).

    Alexa: Awesome! Let me know which films you choose!

  4. Hey Alex,
    Nice post. I think you capture Hartley perfectly with "the filmmaker's trademark oddball characterization and ambiguous dialogue." Shelly was indeed a terrible loss and while I haven't seen Trust I have read some positive thoughts on it and the trailer is inviting. I first found Hartley though Henry Fool which is hands down my favorite of his. It stands heads and shoulders above a lot of quirky, character-centric films and contains such stylish, witty and distinct dialogue that I dare anyone to find a film its equal in the rapid-fire report between the oddball characters.

    Found you on LAMb, making the rounds, invitations extended.
    Above the Line

  5. hey alex, excellent review of trust, i just saw it as my first hartley film last week and i found myself enamoured of it completely. anyway instead of writing a 10000 word capsule i linked to your review as you've clearly been able to capture your feelings more clearly than i can.