Simple Men [1992]

Simple Men opens with small-time hood Bill (Robert Burke from RoboCop 3) asking a bound and blindfolded security guard if he can have the guard's Virgin Mary medallion. "Be good to her and she'll be good to you," says the guard. Immediately after, Bill is double-crossed by his girlfriend and his partner. From there, the plot goes off in a completely different direction: Bill and his younger brother Dennis (William Sage, High Art), a philosophy student, go off in search of their father, a former star shortstop who may have committed a bombing many years ago. Their only clue is a phone number on Long Island; they end up at a cafe run by Kate (Karen Sillas, Female Perversions), which is also the hangout for Elina Löwensohn (Nadja) and Martin Donovan (Hollow Reed, The Opposite of Sex). But plot is never the point in Hal Hartley movies (Trust, Amateur, Henry Fool); it's just a clothesline on which to hang odd, quirky scenes--moments like Donovan and Sage trying to imitate Löwensohn's dance movements to a Sonic Youth song, or a half-drunken conversation about pop music and self-exploitation. Hartley's deliberately stilted dialogue and stylized performances actually play better on video; the movie feels more intimate, making the humor more relaxed and fluid. Hartley is the kind of idiosyncratic filmmaker who provokes love-him-or-hate-him responses, but there's a deep sincerity to his artifice that goes beyond mere posing. Against all commercial wisdom, he's struggling to find his own cinematic poetry. Such an uncommon aspiration is worth checking out. --Bret Fetzer

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