Hal Hartley is an American independent filmmaker who, like Jim Jarmusch, has found a way of making little films for a particular niche in the mainstream market. Defiantly low-budget, his films make a virtue of their limitations. Trust is another of his glimpses into the lives of desperate, ordinary people trying to survive in the wasteland of Middle America.
Trust has much in common with Hartley's previous bargain-basement hit, The Unbelievable Truth (1989). Adrienne Shelly again plays a moody, discontented teenager, Maria, trapped by the ritualistic narrow-mindedness of her suburban family. As in the earlier film, the knight who lands in her life, Matthew (here incarnated by Martin Donovan), is a shady, taciturn character – part violent criminal, part existentialist philosopher.
Their slowly burgeoning relationship – a tentative, asexual liaison for our AIDS-obsessed era – is familiar Hartley territory. New in Trust is the emphasis on family life, with all its binds, tensions and occasional solaces. Typical in the film's portrait gallery is Maria's mother (Merritt Nelson), a hard-bitten, heavy-drinking widow who matter-of-factly tries to divert Matthew's attentions onto her other daughter with the advice: "she's a better lay".
With the family comes family drama – meaning melodrama, or outright soap opera. Some of the funniest and sharpest moments of the film are those that quietly go right over the top. Maria's father, berating her in the kitchen, suddenly falls down dead. Matthew's father greets the sight of a cigarette idly left atop an otherwise spotless sink with a rage worthy of Greek tragedy.
Hartley's filmic style is effortlessly funky. Angled sharply against bare white walls, characters rap with each other in staccato, question-and-answer couplets. Scenes begin and end abruptly. The background New Wave music sometimes wells up, drowning out everything else. Matthew announces that "TV is the opium of the masses", then walks past a dozen wild-eyed suburbanites lined up at a TV repair shop, pathetically cradling their busted sets.
What is most captivating about Trust is its fine grasp on the strange moral ethos of our times. Hartley's heroes are nobody's fools; cynical and world-weary, they do whatever they must to get by in a harsh, inhospitable world. Yet, amid the necessary compromise and inevitable disappointment, a tiny flame still flickers in the hearts of a few, special individuals.
For all its trendy, flip sarcasm, the film is ultimately a romance. Love offers Matthew and Maria a brief, fragile glimmer of hope in this bleak landscape of part-time work and familial discontent. Theirs is an impossible, doomed relationship, but by the end Hartley has his audience praying that Love will Conquer All.
Trust is a rare sort of film: a
tough-minded soapie, a kitchen-sink
© Adrian Martin November 1991