Friday, April 12, 2019

Looking back at Trust, looking forward to “A Conversation with Hal Hartley”

Back in 1991, I selected Hal Hartley’s Trust to present as my Critic’s Choice at the WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival. I am pleased and honored to report that on Saturday, April 13, I will be hosting “A Conversation with Hal Hartley” (10 am at the Westin Houston Hotel), and joining the director for a special screening of Trust (3 pm at the Memorial City Cinemark Theatre) for WorldFest/Houston. Here is my original 1991 review of that film.

Hal Hartley has done something altogether extraordinary for a filmmaker with just two films to his credit. With last year’s The Unbelievable Truth, his debut feature, and Trust, which opens today at the Cineplex-Odeon River Oaks Plaza, he has firmly established himself as a true original, an artist with a distinctive and impressive style.

Hartley is a humane satirist, a sly and compassionate trickster who illuminates his dark comedies with wary skepticism and reluctant optimism. He has a unique vision of life’s absurdities, and a well-tuned ear for the words we use to express and repress our true feelings. And, perhaps most important, he is able to make us laugh out loud at, and with, his sometimes hopelessly confused, sometimes misguidedly resolute characters.

In Trust, Hartley once again sets his story in a drab neighborhood of his native Long Island, and once again focuses on an anxious young woman played by Adrienne Shelly, the leading lady of Unbelievable Truth. As Maria, a 17-year-old high-school senior noted for her purple lipstick and surly attitude, Shelly makes one hell of an entrance. The movie begins with Maria’s informing her parents that she has dropped out of school, plans to marry her jock boyfriend — and, by the way, is pregnant. Her father, understandably upset, snarls: “Slut!” Maria slaps his face, and walks out the door. Dad has a sudden heart attack, and falls down dead.

Meanwhile, over at a nearby computer assembly plant, Matthew — a decade or so older than Maria, with an even worse attitude — is disgusted with the shabby merchandise he is building, and contemptuous of the foreman who wants to keep production flowing. When the foreman gets a little too insistent for Matthew’s taste, Matthew grabs the foreman’s head and clamps it in a vise.

And then things get really grim.

Maria is rejected by her mother (Merritt Nelson), dropped by her football-playing boyfriend (he doesn't want anything, least of all parental responsibilities, to interfere with his scholarship prospects), and nearly raped by a convenience-store clerk. Worse, she inadvertently witnesses a baby-snatching by an even more desperate character.

Matthew's day is somewhat less traumatic, but every bit as debilitating. He is the grudgingly dutiful slave of his father (Jim MacKay), a blue-collar manic-depressive who's never quite satisfied with Matthew’s housekeeping efforts. Matthew drowns his sorrows — or at least douses his pent-up rage — at his local tavern, where the wiser regulars know they had better keep out of his way. Then he wanders into his favorite haunt, a deserted house where, of course, Maria has sought refuge.

At its simplest, most emotionally affecting level, Trust is a love story in which the leads are profoundly skeptical about the very existence of love. At first, Maria and Matthew are exceedingly mistrustful of each other. And even when they let their guard down, there are problems. Matthew shows her his prized possession, a hand grenade that he says he carries with him at all times. “Why?” she asks. “Just in case,” he responds. “Are you emotionally disturbed?” she inquires.

As it turns out, both Maria and Matthew bear some serious psychological scars. Each is responsible, albeit inadvertently, for the death of a parent, and each is being guilt-tripped about it. And, yes, each is the product of a dysfunctional family, though that sort of jargon doesn’t begin to describe the full extent of their bummed-out, mixed-up condition. “A family’s like a gun,” Matthew notes. “You point it in the wrong direction, you're gonna kill somebody.”

Trust – can you think of another recent movie more aptly named? —begins with Maria and Matthew each realizing that the other needs saving, and gains richer, ever more intriguing complexities as each realizes the need for more self-directed rescue work. There is a quietly brilliant scene where Maria realizes how insignificant she must have seemed to her ex-boyfriend, and a heart-wrenching one where Maria writes in her diary: “I am ashamed. I am ashamed of being young. I am ashamed of being stupid.”

For his part, Matthew decides that he needs to be mature, and accept adult responsibility, if he will provide for Maria. Unfortunately, he goes about this in a way that is practically guaranteed to trigger his tripwire temper. And his hand grenade.

Trust has the stark, no-frills look of a small-budget, grimly serious independent production, which only serves to make its deadpan hilarity all the more jarring and amusing. Everyone speaks with a rapid-fire intensity, as though each character is determined to cram the most information, or the greatest threat, into a listener’s limited attention span. Almost all of the supporting actors are perfectly attuned to Hartley's offbeat rhythms, playing their roles and conveying their ill-proportioned passions with the utmost sincerity. And the leads are even better.

Martin Donovan has just the right air of rumpled, seething self-loathing as he plays Matthew as a man who doesn’t really care that he’s drowning, but is determined to toss someone else a life preserver. Matthew doesn’t want Maria to misunderstand — he respects and trusts her, and that’s not love, but it should be enough. Donovan makes it very clear that Martin isn’t any better at convincing himself than he is at convincing Maria.

As Maria, Adrienne Shelly has the more challenging role — her character evolves from mini-skirted bimbo to self-effacing victim, and from there to something far more formidable — and she plays it with uncommon skill, grace, intelligence and conviction. Trust is probably the only movie ever made where the heroine must put on, not take off, her glasses before the hero even thinks of kissing her. Shelly makes braininess, and budding confidence, very attractive indeed. When she smiles, you get the feeling she could inspire a man to do anything. She might even get him to give up his hand grenade.

Postscript: Adrienne Shelly was cruelly and abruptly taken from us in 2006. But her films — including Waitress (released in 2007), a charming comedy she wrote and directed, and which later was the basis for the long-running Broadway musical — remain forever in the present tense.

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