Aiming to be the kind of restrained, grown-up ethical drama that we don’t see a great deal of anymore, “Things People Do” from editor-turned-director Saar Klein, premiered unassumingly at the Berlin Film Festival, as though aware it was predestined to be almost immediately eclipsed by showier, punchier titles. Which is probably a little unfair, as the film does boast a lot of strong elements: unusually expressive cinematography; a well-rendered sense of place; Jason Isaacs. And in general it nearly succeeds in delivering on its gently moralist ambitions. However, its failings are all the more glaring for being in the realm of characterization, which is kind of crucial if a film of this kind is to transcend the potential limitations of the indie drama ghetto. Unfortunately “Things People Do” scuppers its own chances by having people do things we just don’t ever, ever believe they would.
Bill (Wes Bentley) and Susan (Vinessa Shaw) are happily, kissy-cuddly married, with two sons, the younger of whom openly worships his Dad, and the elder, while in trouble for cheating at school and sullen in response to his father’s gentle, lesson-learning chastisement, we later discover is actually taking everything he says to heart. So in a super-whitebread sort of way, the family, living in a house on the very edge of the desert, its yard dominated by the recent addition of a swimming pool, seems picture perfect. This is emphasized by counterpoint when Bill befriends Frank (Jason Isaacs) a heavy-drinking cop separated from his own family. However, Bill—a soft-hearted insurance claims investigator whose kindness toward claimants is seen as out of step with these belt-tightening times—is hiding a fairly enormous secret from his wife: he’s been let go by his firm and has no way of making a looming mortgage payment.
This is already problematic. Partially down to Bentley’s perhaps over-sympathetic and under-nuanced playing of Bill as to-the-bone decent in adhering to his own code of fair play, it’s hard to countenance him embarking on even this level of well-intentioned deceit. But perhaps we could let that slide if this same schism didn’t recur, much more melodramatically, to kick the plot properly into gear. With little prior warning as to the depths of his despair, suddenly Bill is in the desert carrying the gun with which his cop father killed himself, also intending suicide, which causes him to be mistaken for an armed mugger by a pair of strangers. Taking their money (the inference is that as a cheating couple they somehow deserved it, as do many of his subsequent victims), Bill sees a way out of his financial troubles: armed robbery.
But the idea of the good man gone bad, pushed beyond the limits of his decency into criminality or violence or other out-of-character behavior, is one that only ever works if we feel like we see the interim steps on that journey of devolution, if we see long in advance the screw working loose, the joint rattling, that eventually means the wheels will come off. No such inkling here occurs, with the script and the performance in fact conspiring to point us in the exact opposite direction. And where in stories of a similar trajectory, usually the protagonist doesn’t have quite so far to fall, morally speaking, this film sets up its central character as the kind of gentle soul who not only loves his wife and delivers reasoned anti-cheating lectures to his son, he calls foot faults on a friendly game of bowling. On himself.
Now we’re prepared to believe that in a world, such as that we live in, of moral compromise and social injustice (there’s even a heavy-handed attempt to shoehorn in some broad topicality when Bill screams at a recalcitrant bank minion “We bailed you out! What about me?”) even a saint may lose his halo. But Bill’s flip switch from devoted husband and father, to suicidal loner, to gun-toting thief seems to operate on a hair trigger, and with the focus of this morality play so tightly on him, the yawning gaps in motivation feel unbridgeable. And on occasion the attempts to traverse them leads the script to deliver some insistently on-the-nose moments. Bill’s first premeditated robbery has to take place, for no discernible reason, during his son’s big baseball game, and every time he goes into a certain gas station he overhears exactly the pertinent part of the manager’s conversation (with the cashier, played nicely by Haley Bennett) and so on. More’s the pity, because there’s otherwise a lot to admire here, especially the evocative photography that gives the edge-of-nothingness locations and flat wide skies their own poetry, and Klein’s (Oscar-nominated) editing chops yielding some woozy, impressionistic sections that hint, more than anything in the text, at there being more going on than lies on the surface. Isaacs is terrific as always, though absent for large swathes of the film when we do feel his loss. In fact, an interesting mental trick is to imagine this film with the lead actors switching roles—we can’t help but feel that Isaacs’ ambivalent edge might have sold Bill’s psychological contortions better.
This kind of thing has been done more scathingly, in films like “Falling Down,” and more ironically in “American Beauty.” But this film, in its straight-up sincerity, sort of reminded us of that other ‘Things…’ movie, “Things We Lost in the Fire” and its more thoughtful, less arch tone means that it can’t shrug off its narrative failings with a joke or a plea of satire. It’s just a shame that the film’s good intentions are undone by its issues, because as small scale and un-grandiose as it is, it plays in rich territory about men and masculinity and fatherhood, especially in those scenes that Bentley and Isaacs share, and those knotty, universal topics can on occasion elevate domestic dramas into a higher realm. But there’s simply not enough truth to the central character for that to happen here, and so “Things People Do” remains relentlessly minor, in key, ambition and impact. All the same, broken as it is, it still just about functions as a gentle, well-meaning reminder to be thankful for what you’ve got, rather than fearful at the prospect of losing it. [C+]