Last updated August 5th 2014
The American Dream is not dead, it’s become a nightmare. Examining cars in a junkyard, the charred remains of a family home, the wreckage of someone else’s dream, looking for clues to determine fault, taking careful notes, is Bill Scanlon, insurance adjuster, the protagonist of Saar Klein’s debut feature Things People Do. Bill (Wes Bentley) is living the dream: a beautiful wife (Vinessa Shaw) and two boys, a big house with a swimming pool in the back yard, gleaming like a jewel in the arid landscape.
Bill is a good guy. A loving husband, a father who plays with his kids and teaches them right from wrong, he is honest to a fault. Even when hanging out with the guys, bowling, he feels compelled to confess that he stepped over the line. If one were to accuse him of anything, he seems to be something of a goody-goody, too timid and repressed.
Things People Do reflects a culture and an economy in crisis, asking critical moral questions without lapsing into the didactic or narcissistic. It’s a quintessentially American tale, with ‘everyman’ Bill stumbling along through his life’s adventure. What makes a man? What does it mean to be a good father? What are the bonds of friendship? At one point in the film, Bill’s son Henry says “my Dad taught me that a man takes responsibility” – and this is precisely the question the film probes, how ought one to interpret and take responsibility? There is probably an easy consensus that a man (yes, or woman, but we are looking at a particular cultural construct here), a good man, takes responsibility for his family. But when things fall apart, what is a man supposed to do?
Klein shifts skillfully between action and reflection. The face of introspection, the noise of daily life, the vast sky and desert landscape – all these have their place and time in the visual experience of the film, the pace and sense of scale setting the emotional tone of this film.
Wes Bentley’s Bill is easy to like as he stumbles about trying to make lemonade with the lemons life is throwing at him, and it’s a strange brew! I couldn’t help smiling along with Bill as he drives away from the scene of the crime feeling that justice has been served, bouncing along to Roger Miller’s cheerful song “You can’t roller skate in a buffalo herd/but you can be happy if you’ve a mind to.” Shake off those chains, and cut loose.
Yet Bill becomes ever more entangled in the internecine lines of past and present, family and friendship, morality and the pursuit of happiness, the letter and spirit of the law. His friendship with Frank (Jason Isaacs), is reminiscent of O. Henry’s poignant story, Twenty Years After, but with a very different twist. Frank is a reminder of Bill’s past, but he is also “the ghost of Christmas future,” he’s a man who has already lost just about everything that matters. “Ain’t no sin, ain’t no virtue, there’s just things people do,” he tells Bill. Frank’s story unfolds in parallel to Bill’s as their relationship develops, and there’s no telling where it will end.
Things People Do (USA, 110 min, 2014, English with Hebrew subtitles)
Directed by Saar Klein; Screenplay: Saar Klein, Joe Conway; Cast: Wes Bentley, Jason Isaacs, Vinessa Shaw, Haley Bennett, Keith Carradine, Sam Trammell, Missy Yager, Alex Knight.
JFF screening on Friday, July 18th at 15:00.