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.