"A man losing his job is a modern horror story," director Saar Klein told me, a propos of his new film Things People Do, which just won the 40th Anniversary Award at the Deauville American Film Festival.
In Things People Do, an insurance man with an ideal middle-class set up -- an attractive blonde wife, two sons and a swimming pool, in the heart of the California desert -- loses his job because he is too "nice" when investigating insurance claims. And like the protagonist of Murnau's celebrated 1924 film The Last Laugh, Bill is too ashamed to let his family know. He just pretends to go to the office each day.
His family however gets bitter and suspicious about his new stinginess. "Why can't you buy me an iPod?" one son whines. "It's not expensive!"
What makes the film alluring is the camera's focus on the unemployed man's brooding tormented eyes, and his inability to express his anguish to anyone around him. Bill, played by Wes Bentley, becomes the classic outsider, in the tradition of American anti-heros such as Travis in Taxi Driver or Humphrey Bogart in In a Lonely Place.
He also becomes -- in desperation -- a hold-up man.
"I always associated with someone outside the group," Saar Klein explained, as we discussed the genesis of this story. "I have a lot of empathy with the outsider. It came from moving at age nine to the Bronx, from Israel, and being judged for being different."
But the inspiration for the script came from a conversation with Terrence Malick, for whom Klein was the Oscar-nominated editor on the film The Thin Red Line.
"Malick loves talking about philosophy," Klein smiled. "We had great conversations.
We were discussing Raskolnikov and the moral damage crime leads to. And Malick said, why don't you make a film?"
Klein, a film editor and director/writer of commercials, launched into a five year project to make Things People Do.
Klein's skill as an editor is apparent in this film. The strength of Things People Do lies in its impressive visuals and cuts: the scenes of holdup man Bill driving along the desert roads, in anguish, cut with shots of his swimming pool, which devolves from the place where his kids can play, in the first scene, to a poisonous well that causes mysterious red splotches on the family's skin.
It is a landscape of alienation.
Klein commented: "Alienation happens in modern society. I was fascinated by these characters living on the edge of a desert trying to create structure. The neighborhoods are cookie-cutter houses. They are ordered and organized. But the deserts have wind in them."
And the swimming pool (like in Sunset Boulevard) becomes a metaphor for the American dream gone wrong.
"The pool represents Bill's soul. The clear pool gets contaminated. The pool [eventually] looks like a tomb-- "
The visual symbolism works. What mars this interesting tale, however, is that it is not fully developed. The characters seem hastily sketched, especially our lead, whose emotions range from inchoate to violent, and the wife who cannot even boast that emotional range. From the beginning, the blonde housewife is stern and unloving with her husband, even before she finds out he has lost his job, and shows little complexity beyond her disappointment that somehow the money seems to be dwindling. It is hard to sympathize with this character or even believe that there is a marriage to save, which is ostensibly the goal of the narrative.
But to make up for this flatly-designed wife and the unclear psyche of the husband, we do have the interesting side-character of a teenaged cashier whom the hold-up man befriends in a convenience store. The conversations between these two "marginal" characters are fresh and emotionally wrought: indeed, the best dialogues in the film.
"This guy is doing damage to his life," Klein commented. "He can't reveal what he's doing to his family and best friend, so he bonds with a cashier in the supermarket. I wanted there to be a lot of empathy between them, a little warmth in a cold world. "
Klein also noted that ultimately he wanted his film to leave his audience thinking about moral issues: about the morality of this man who turns to crime to get money for his family, and about the moral question, posed by what turns out to be an ambiguous ending, of 'just punishment'.
"Survival and being moral are in conflict with each other," he commented. "Audiences are left wondering what is the just outcome for the protagonist. I've noticed that fifty percent of audience members leave the theater thinking that one ending would be more moral, fifty percent the other."
This audience member, however, was struck more by the amoral issues in the film: how the family man actually seems to enjoy -- and take on with macho passion -- his hold-ups, brandishing his gun and waving it around, forcing people to the floor. Indeed, the only moral issue that perturbed me was the questionability of the protagonist's self-assigned role as a vigilante: in two scenes, he takes pleasure in "punishing" his victims for being less than moral themselves. As for the macro moral conundrum of crime-and-(just) punishment, à la Dostoyevsky, referred to by the director, this seems an afterthought, rather than integral to the story, as it is never clear that Bill feels any remorse whatsoever about the terror he caused, only shame about having had to embrace an "outsider" identity and guilt about lying to his family.
What dark violent needs lurk in this man, seemingly content with his iceberg wife, sons and swimming pool?
This issue is left unresolved.