Melodrama, slapstick, and art-house meet in this sadly neglected, slightly twisted comedy.
Image: Fine Line Features
Twenty years ago, Hal Hartley was a writer/director to be reckoned with. His distinct personal style made him a firm favourite among the arthouse crowd during the early 90s boom of the indies at the same time as filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch, and just before Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino. Now, Hartley is a mostly-forgotten foot-note in the Sundance and Cannes archives. His last film, starring Parker Posey and Jeff Goldblum, wasn’t released in the UK on any platform.
Trust was Hartley’s second film, released in 1990. It starts with high school girl Maria Coughlin (Adrienne Shelly) casually informing her parents that she is pregnant. When her father calls her a slut, she slaps him and storms out. He keels over, stone dead. Meanwhile, hot-tempered Matthew Slaughter (Martin Donovan) quits his job at a computer factory over the quality of the material and puts his boss’ head in a vice. The two meet and start a relationship built on mutual respect and admiration. But is it love? Or is it better?
One of Hartley’s techniques is stilted but oddly poetic dialogue, used to create a sort of intellectual melodramatic comedy. While he hadn’t quite landed on his actors-as-ballet-dancers motif that would be a regular feature of his later work, the way that his characters talk and move is very much in his individual style. The tagline declared the film “A slightly twisted comedy”, which is frankly simplifying it. It’s very funny in places, but also surprisingly moving, especially given the frequent philosophical discussions and opinions of what should be unlikeable characters.
This is largely due to the great performances from Donovan and the late Shelly. Shelly (maybe best known now for writing and directing the lovely Waitress) was, for a short time at least, Hartley’s muse. Maria starts the film as a spoilt brat, but the harsh reality of the outside world and the influence of Matthew turn her into an adult. The mauve lipstick and short skirts disappear, replaced by thick glasses and a job at a factory. Donovan would go on to star in five more of Hartley’s films, playing roles ranging from an amnesiac to Jesus Christ, but he gives his finest performance here. Matthew Slaughter is a technophobe cursed with a savant-like gift for fixing machines. This frustration causes him to drink and smoke incessantly, and keep a grenade in his bedroom. Maria describes him as “Dangerous, but sincere.” Her friend replies, “Sincerely dangerous.” Maria shakes her head, and tells her “No, he’s dangerous because he’s sincere.” These two souls are slowly ground into depression and compromise, as Maria wonders to keep her baby, and Matthew resumes work at the computer factory to support her, and even starts to watch television. “Television makes these daily sacrifices possible,” he tells her. “Deadens the inner core of my being.”
The fine line between melodrama and dark comedy is trodden carefully and beautifully. A woman complains about her husband to Maria, moments before stealing an infant from a pram. Her mother believes Maria should spend her days looking after her; after all she robbed her of her husband. But as Maria’s divorced sister Peg (The Sopranos’ Edie Falco) tells her, “If you go home right now, Ma’s gonna stab you in the heart with a steak knife.” Matthew’s father beats him for not cleaning the bathroom properly, but bristles at the suggestion that he’s not raising his son right. These kitchen-sink realism scenes are shown with the same sort of detached playfulness as Matthew’s outbursts and the stupidity of Maria’s jock boyfriend. But then Hartley gives us a tender scene between the two leads, and there is no doubt about where the director’s heart is.
Trust sometimes plays like a darker, harsher Wes Anderson film. It’s idiosyncratic and unapologetically non-mainstream, but it’s very funny, moving, and oddly beautiful. Now, the film is sadly best known for the opening’s tragic similarity to the murder of Adrienne Shelly, or inspiring a line in a Belle and Sebastian song. Hartley is a filmmaker who is deserving of not just a comeback, but a reappraisal.
For art-house fans looking for an alternative to modern kooky indie romcoms with their manic pixie dream girls, Trust is a wonderful film worth tracking down.