Simple Men

(Hal Hartley, USA, 1992)


Hal Hartley is a man who likes to repeat himself. Like Peter Greenaway or Krzysztof Kieslowski, he has hit upon a successful art house formula, and he is clearly determined to flog it to death.

The Hartley signature is recognisable from the first frame of this or any of his previous efforts (like The Unbelievable Truth, 1989, and Trust, 1990): characters who stand inertly in square compositions or stride in straight lines traced by the camera, reciting dry aphorisms.

The prevailing tone of Hartley's films is droll, flip and ironic. His characters (usually played by members of his repertory team) brush against the big dilemmas of life and love, morality and mortality, but shrug most matters off with a wry gesture. Has Hartley – as his fans and publicists love to claim – captured the Zeitgeist of the '90s within a unique cinematic form?

Hartley's style is far from original – as any buff who knows and loves the films of Mark Rappaport (such as The Scenic Route, 1978) can testify. The script of Simple Men does, however, offer some oddly touching and poetic moments. Bill (Robert Burke) and Dennis (William Sage) are brothers fleeing the law after a robbery. They land in a small town looking for their father, a '60s radical who is also in hiding.

Plots tend to go deliberately astray in Hartley's films. People lose sight of both their goals and their motivations. Opportunities for personal redemption – honesty, love, political commitment – arise for a moment from the fog of everyday life and then disappear into it again.

Simple Men finds it hard to affirm any positive values in a listless world but, all the same, it is animated by a whimsical nostalgia for the better days that no Hartley hero can quite manage to remember.

MORE Hartley: Amateur, Flirt, Henry Fool

© Adrian Martin May 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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