Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...
Watch: First Trailer For Oliver Stone’s ‘Snowden’ Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley & Nicolas Cage Watch: First Trailer For Oliver Stone’s ‘Snowden’ Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley & Nicolas Cage 'Thor: The Dark World' Director Alan Taylor Says His Marvel Experience Was "Particularly Wrenching" 'Thor: The Dark World' Director Alan Taylor Says His Marvel Experience Was "Particularly Wrenching" Watch: Anna Paquin Is Rescued In Clip From 'X-Men: Days of Future Past - The Rogue Cut' Watch: Anna Paquin Is Rescued In Clip From 'X-Men: Days of Future Past - The Rogue Cut' Kevin Feige Says 'Spider-Man 2' Is "One Of The Best Superhero Movies Ever," Talks John Hughes Influence On New Spidey Kevin Feige Says 'Spider-Man 2' Is "One Of The Best Superhero Movies Ever," Talks John Hughes Influence On New Spidey Watch: Live Your Ultimate Fantasy With The First NSFW Trailer For Gaspar Noe's 'Love' Watch: Live Your Ultimate Fantasy With The First NSFW Trailer For Gaspar Noe's 'Love' Review & Recap: ‘True Detective’ Season 2, Episode 2, ‘Night Finds You’ Review & Recap: ‘True Detective’ Season 2, Episode 2, ‘Night Finds You’ Terrence Malick’s ‘Knight Of Cups’ Won’t Arrive Until 2016, Austin Music Scene Drama Not Titled ‘Weightless’ Terrence Malick’s ‘Knight Of Cups’ Won’t Arrive Until 2016, Austin Music Scene Drama Not Titled ‘Weightless’ The Punisher Will Reportedly Appear As The Villain In ‘Daredevil’ Season 2 The Punisher Will Reportedly Appear As The Villain In ‘Daredevil’ Season 2 'Lucy 2' And 'Colombiana 2' Are In Development 'Lucy 2' And 'Colombiana 2' Are In Development Mixed Reactions For Marvel's 'Ant-Man' After First Press Screening Plus New Promos And Pics Mixed Reactions For Marvel's 'Ant-Man' After First Press Screening Plus New Promos And Pics The Essentials: The 5 Best Rachel McAdams Performances The Essentials: The 5 Best Rachel McAdams Performances Watch: Tom Hardy Does Double Duty In Trailer For Gangster Drama 'Legend' Watch: Tom Hardy Does Double Duty In Trailer For Gangster Drama 'Legend' The 25 Best TV Shows Of The 2014/2015 Season The 25 Best TV Shows Of The 2014/2015 Season Kevin Feige Says 'Spider-Man' Is "Definitely A Sony Picture," Talks Role Of 'Ant-Man' In Phase 3, More Kevin Feige Says 'Spider-Man' Is "Definitely A Sony Picture," Talks Role Of 'Ant-Man' In Phase 3, More The 25 Best Animated Films Of The 21st Century So Far The 25 Best Animated Films Of The 21st Century So Far The 50 Best Films Of The Decade So Far The 50 Best Films Of The Decade So Far The 10 All-Time Best Episodes Of 'Parks And Recreation' The 10 All-Time Best Episodes Of 'Parks And Recreation' The 25 Best Horror Films Of The 21st Century So Far The 25 Best Horror Films Of The 21st Century So Far The 20 Best TV Shows Of The 2013/2014 Season The 20 Best TV Shows Of The 2013/2014 Season All The Songs In 'Pitch Perfect' Including La Roux, David Guetta, Azealia Banks, Nicki Minaj & More All The Songs In 'Pitch Perfect' Including La Roux, David Guetta, Azealia Banks, Nicki Minaj & More

Berlin Review: Saar Klein's 'Things People Do' Starring Wes Bentley, Jason Isaacs & Vinessa Shaw

Photo of Jessica Kiang By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist February 11, 2014 at 1:16PM

Aiming to be the kind of restrained, grown-up ethical drama that we don't see a great deal of anymore, "Things People Do" from editor-turned-director Saar Klein, premiered unassumingly at the Berlin Film Festival, as though aware it was predestined to be almost immediately eclipsed by showier, punchier titles. Which is probably a little unfair, as the film does boast a lot of strong elements: unusually expressive cinematography; a well-rendered sense of place; Jason Isaacs. And in general it nearly succeeds in delivering on its gently moralist ambitions. However, its failings are all the more glaring for being in the realm of characterization, which is kind of crucial if a film of this kind is to transcend the potential limitations of the indie drama ghetto. Unfortunately "Things People Do" scuppers its own chances by having people do things we just don't ever, ever believe they would.
3
Things People Do, Wes Bentley

Aiming to be the kind of restrained, grown-up ethical drama that we don't see a great deal of anymore, "Things People Do" from editor-turned-director Saar Klein, premiered unassumingly at the Berlin Film Festival, as though aware it was predestined to be almost immediately eclipsed by showier, punchier titles. Which is probably a little unfair, as the film does boast a lot of strong elements: unusually expressive cinematography; a well-rendered sense of place; Jason Isaacs. And in general it nearly succeeds in delivering on its gently moralist ambitions. However, its failings are all the more glaring for being in the realm of characterization, which is kind of crucial if a film of this kind is to transcend the potential limitations of the indie drama ghetto. Unfortunately "Things People Do" scuppers its own chances by having people do things we just don't ever, ever believe they would.

Bill (Wes Bentley) and Susan (Vinessa Shaw) are happily, kissy-cuddly married, with two sons, the younger of whom openly worships his Dad, and the elder, while in trouble for cheating at school and sullen in response to his father's gentle, lesson-learning chastisement, we later discover is actually taking everything he says to heart. So in a super-whitebread sort of way, the family, living in a house on the very edge of the desert, its yard dominated by the recent addition of a swimming pool, seems picture perfect. This is emphasized by counterpoint when Bill befriends Frank (Jason Isaacs) a heavy-drinking cop separated from his own family. However, Bill—a soft-hearted insurance claims investigator whose kindness toward claimants is seen as out of step with these belt-tightening times—is hiding a fairly enormous secret from his wife: he's been let go by his firm and has no way of making a looming mortgage payment.

Things People Do, Wes Bentley

This is already problematic. Partially down to Bentley's perhaps over-sympathetic and under-nuanced playing of Bill as to-the-bone decent in adhering to his own code of fair play, it's hard to countenance him embarking on even this level of well-intentioned deceit. But perhaps we could let that slide if this same schism didn't recur, much more melodramatically, to kick the plot properly into gear. With little prior warning as to the depths of his despair, suddenly Bill is in the desert carrying the gun with which his cop father killed himself, also intending suicide, which causes him to be mistaken for an armed mugger by a pair of strangers. Taking their money (the inference is that as a cheating couple they somehow deserved it, as do many of his subsequent victims), Bill sees a way out of his financial troubles: armed robbery.

But the idea of the good man gone bad, pushed beyond the limits of his decency into criminality or violence or other out-of-character behavior, is one that only ever works if we feel like we see the interim steps on that journey of devolution, if we see long in advance the screw working loose, the joint rattling, that eventually means the wheels will come off. No such inkling here occurs, with the script and the performance in fact conspiring to point us in the exact opposite direction. And where in stories of a similar trajectory, usually the protagonist doesn't have quite so far to fall, morally speaking, this film sets up its central character as the kind of gentle soul who not only loves his wife and delivers reasoned anti-cheating lectures to his son, he calls foot faults on a friendly game of bowling. On himself.

Things People Do, Wes Bentley

Now we're prepared to believe that in a world, such as that we live in, of moral compromise and social injustice (there's even a heavy-handed attempt to shoehorn in some broad topicality when Bill screams at a recalcitrant bank minion "We bailed you out! What about me?") even a saint may lose his halo. But Bill's flip switch from devoted husband and father, to suicidal loner, to gun-toting thief seems to operate on a hair trigger, and with the focus of this morality play so tightly on him, the yawning gaps in motivation feel unbridgeable. And on occasion the attempts to traverse them leads the script to deliver some insistently on-the-nose moments. Bill's first premeditated robbery has to take place, for no discernible reason, during his son's big baseball game, and every time he goes into a certain gas station he overhears exactly the pertinent part of the manager's conversation (with the cashier, played nicely by Haley Bennett) and so on. More's the pity, because there's otherwise a lot to admire here, especially the evocative photography that gives the edge-of-nothingness locations and flat wide skies their own poetry, and Klein's (Oscar-nominated) editing chops yielding some woozy, impressionistic sections that hint, more than anything in the text, at there being more going on than lies on the surface. Isaacs is terrific as always, though absent for large swathes of the film when we do feel his loss. In fact, an interesting mental trick is to imagine this film with the lead actors switching roles—we can't help but feel that Isaacs' ambivalent edge might have sold Bill's psychological contortions better.

This kind of thing has been done more scathingly, in films like "Falling Down," and more ironically in "American Beauty." But this film, in its straight-up sincerity, sort of reminded us of that other 'Things...' movie, "Things We Lost in the Fire" and its more thoughtful, less arch tone means that it can't shrug off its narrative failings with a joke or a plea of satire. It's just a shame that the film's good intentions are undone by its issues, because as small scale and un-grandiose as it is, it plays in rich territory about men and masculinity and fatherhood, especially in those scenes that Bentley and Isaacs share, and those knotty, universal topics can on occasion elevate domestic dramas into a higher realm. But there's simply not enough truth to the central character for that to happen here, and so "Things People Do" remains relentlessly minor, in key, ambition and impact. All the same, broken as it is, it still just about functions as a gentle, well-meaning reminder to be thankful for what you've got, rather than fearful at the prospect of losing it. [C+]

Click here for all of our coverage from the 2014 Berlin Film Festival.

This article is related to: Wes Bentley, Jason Isaacs, Vinessa Shaw, Reviews, Review, Things People Do, Saar Klein, Haley Bennett, Berlin International Film Festival


The Playlist

The obsessives' guide to contemporary cinema via film discussion, news, reviews, features, nostalgia, movie music, soundtracks, DVDs and more.


E-Mail Updates