Berlin Review: Wes Bentley Plays a Suburban Dad-Turned-Robber In ‘Breaking Bad’-Like Thriller ‘Things People Do’

Berlin Review: Wes Bentley Plays a Suburban Dad-Turned-Robber In 'Breaking Bad'-Like Thriller 'Things People Do'

Like a condensation of the plot and
themes in “Breaking Bad” without the meth, director Saar Klein’s
impressive debut “Things People Do” puts a criminal spin on suburban
discontent. Aided by a grave, committed performance by Wes Bentley in
the lead role, Klein’s story treads familiar territory but doesn’t take
its appeal for granted. The story of settled insurance salesman Bill
(Bentley), who turns to robbery after losing his job and hides it from
his wife, “Things People Do” makes its dramatic material stick —
despite a few screenplay imperfections — by upping the tension with
ample restraint: guns are brandished but rarely fired, voices almost
never raised. Klein maintains the intensity while delivering the
heavy-handed themes with a whisper.

Bentley’s sad-eyed gaze
becomes the movie’s central image early on, when Bill is laid off by his
superior for lacking the ability to succeed at his job. The moment
arrives immediately after a Terrence Malick-like opening credits scene
— unsurprisingly, given that Klein previously edited Malick’s “The Thin
Red Line” and “The New World” — that shows the character enjoying his
cozy family life while his young son’s adoring words for his father
supply the narration. From that lyrical beginning, Klein pulls out the
rug from beneath his protagonist’s feet. The news of Bill’s firing sinks
in fast: The American dream glimpsed in the movie’s initial moments has
been abruptly snatched away from him.

Armed with the gun owned
by his late father (and former cop), Bill avoids confronting his wife
and instead tries his hand at petty crimes. The results are at first
comically awkward (“I suppose I should tie you up?” he says to a
horrified pair during his first attempt at a home invasion), but
gradually he gets the hang of it. Bentley makes the character’s
transition from depressed average Joe to desperate lunatic into a
believable one purely through his increasingly confident expression.

Set
in sunny New Mexico, “Things People Do” not only resembles the plot of
“Breaking Bad” but its setting, as scenes alternate between bland
neighborhoods and the expansive desert landscape (beautifully captured
with a sharp mixture of browns and gold shades by cinematographer
Matthias Koenigswieser). It’s the latter environment where Bill
frequently retreats with newfound drinking buddy Frank (Jason Isaacs), a
jaded police detective and divorced dad eager to share some shooting
tips with his pal without realizing Bill’s ulterior motives. Shifting
between their bonding sessions, Bill’s uncomfortable home life and his
increasing addiction to robbing people around town, “Things People Do”
creates an engrossing narrative that flows along with few distractions
along the way.

Nevertheless, the director’s screenplay
finds room for small details that foreground Bill’s moral struggles with
credible results. The quiet moments preceding his initial crime have a
gripping quality tied to the uncertainty of his ability to pull it off –
and why he’s doing it at all. While hiding his frantic endeavor from
his family, Bill’s experiences continually impact his behavior around
them, as he dispensing advice to his son and displays fresh confidence
in bed with his wife (an underutilized Vinessa Shaw).  

Bentley’s
measured delivery meshes nicely with a plot that continually forces him
to withhold information. His friendship with Frank adds an especially
fascinating dimension to Bill’s conundrum (not unlike Walter White’s
relationship with his DEA brother-in-law at the center of “Breaking
Bad”), with Isaacs’ muted delivery making it hard to determine if the
character has grown suspicious.

Nevertheless, as “Things People
Do” heads towards its final act, Klein adds a handful of scattered
developments with less than satisfying results. The suspense over
whether or not he’ll get caught ultimately wears thin. Even as the movie
sustains its gravitas and keeps Bill’s insecurities in play, it suffers
from a half-baked script held together by performances and concept more
than dialogue, which contains its fair share of on-the-nose asides each
time Bill hints at his situation to those around him. His eventual
self-destructive choices in the movie’s final third strain the
credibility so well established beforehand.

Still, the central
drama remains in play, suggesting that Bill’s desperation is aided by
the various forces around him. “Fear keeps us alive,” the detective
tells Bill, inadvertently spurring him on. Later, Frank paraphrases the
line from “The Grapes of Wrath” that gives the movie its title (“There
ain’t no virtues, just things people do”). Klein’s screenplay never
approaches those great literary heights, but it scores plenty of points
for taking a smart approach to a scenario we’ve seen before and still
managing to instill it with unpredictability.  

Criticwire Grade: B

HOW
WILL IT PLAY?
An under-the-radar premiere at the Berlin International
Film Festival, “Things People Do” will make its U.S. premiere the SXSW Film
Festival, where it’s bound to receive more attention for its strong
performances. A midsize distributor might be able to drum up some
respectable returns in limited release, while potential for decent
business in ancillary markets is high.

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