Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on middlin’-sized living room television.
As a father of two daughters, I’d say that one of my biggest fears is having one of them announce a pregnancy some time long before I’m ready to be a grandfather. That would be 15-20 years in the future, for reference. Hal Hartley’s Trust explores this fear rather dramatically. In the opening couple of minutes, 17-year-old high school dropout Maria Coughlin (Adrienne Shelly) drops the pregnancy bombshell on her parents. Her father calls her a slut, she slaps him, and he falls dead of a heart attack.
Maria’s boyfriend Tony (Gary Sauer) dumps her when she tells him of the pregnancy, and when she returns home, her mother (Merritt Nelson) kicks her out, rounding out the single worst day of her life. At the same time, we are introduced to Matthew Slaughter (Martin Donovan). Matthew is educated and skilled, but unhappy and sometimes violent. His job involves fixing mediocre computer equipment, and he’s tired of fixing the same lousy machines over and over. He complains, gets yelled at in return, and he responds by sticking his boss’s head in a vise and walking out.
Matthew’s relationship with his father (John MacKay) is similar to Maria’s with her mother. His father is emotionally and mentally abusive. He’s passive-aggressive, aggressive-aggressive, and demanding. Nothing Matthew ever does is good enough, a lesson we learn with Matthew’s endless cleaning of the spotless white bathroom.
Now, to make a movie, we need to put these two screwed-up people in the same place and see what happens, which is exactly what Hartley does.
What Hartley has done here (he also wrote the film) is present us with real characters who are more than just a collection of quirks. Oh, make no mistake—there are plenty of quirks here, but these are not Wes Anderson-level quirk collections. Matthew, for instance, is smart and tends to use large words. These confuse Maria, who constantly questions him about his vocabulary. Matthew’s biggest quirk is the hand grenade his father brought back from Korea. Matthew carries this with him just in case he feels like using it some day.
As the film progresses, it becomes evident that only Maria and Matthew are real people; everyone else in their lives, while technically human, is nothing more than an outlet for aggression and control. Both Maria’s mother and Matthew’s father spend the film attempting to exert control over their children through guilt, browbeating, and naked aggression. They are filled with a petty evil, a complete and utter selfishness that desires not its own happiness, but equivalent misery in everyone else in their lives.
The relationship between our two principle characters grows as they realize that they have a great deal of respect for each other. It might not be love, but it’s definitely something. Matthew proposes marriage despite their age difference and the disapproval of his father and especially her mother, who would rather he pursue Peg (Edie Falco), her other daughter. Maria goes back and forth between wanting to have the baby and wanting an abortion instead, and Matthew struggles with the idea of needing to return to a job he hated to support what will be his new family.
These are real decisions and real struggles, which is what makes this film work as well as it does. Rather than giving us a ridiculous situation as many comedies do, or pushing the outer edges of believability, we’re given a real situation to observe, and real people trying their best to make their way through it, and perhaps find a little happiness and companionship along the way.
The film is Maria’s from the very start, and of all the characters, it is she who changes the most. In the opening few moments, she looks like a stereotypical early-90s high school hootchie. Her face is coated in cosmetics and her hair is huge. By the end of the film, the cosmetics are gone, the hair is pulled into a low, sensible ponytail, and she’s even started wearing her glasses that she complained made her look like a librarian.
Where Trust loses me is the last 15 minutes. While the ending is fitting and makes sense with the rest of the film, I didn’t like what happened, and I would have preferred something a little more uplifting, at least for some of the characters. But that’s life, isn’t it? Not everything turns out for the positive, and not every story ends up on the uptick.
Why to watch Trust: Comedy that’s so black it’s navy blue.
Why not to watch: It won’t give you the ending you want.