Dir: Saar Klein. US. 2014. 110mins

Things People Do 1

The end credits on film editor Saar Klein’s directorial debut pay “special thanks” to his mentor Terrence Malick but the tribute isn’t really necessary; Klein’s debt is writ large onscreen throughout Things People Do, a seductively flawed tale of the middle-class American dream gone adrift in the desert.

Klein shows a deft hand in several memorable dramatic scenes.

The film’s finely calibrated rhythms, impressionistic visuals and repeated motifs pray an attractive hymn to the man Klein worked with on The Thin Red Line and Tree Of Life and the result is an intriguing, occasionally haunting work of some power where the ethereal visuals ultimately threaten to overpower a more grounded narrative.

Israeli-born, German-national Klein sits his film on the arid edges of the New Mexico desert where his isolated characters maintain a tenuous grip on their lives. There, in the quasi wilderness, he switches between the oblique visual style of his mentor and the more linear pursuits of a morality play, but the two components don’t always gel. When it works, Things People Do forces the viewer directly and uncomfortably into its lead character’s dilemma, but the film’s drifting, shifting tone is forced down narrative corridors which it ultimately finds uncomfortable.

Much rides on the shoulders of Wes Bentley as nice guy Bill Scanlin, a debt-ridden insurance adjustor and father-of-two who, we learn, has been let go from his job although he keeps up the day-to-day pretence  in front of his family. A key motif in the film is a swimming pool Bill has installed in this drought zone for which he borrowed $40,000; its a stunning, repetitive visual, emblematic of Bill’s poor decision-making.

Bill is a straight-up guy, too-nice for the dog-eat-dog world he’s trying to live in (in fact, he seems to identify with a stray dog in the desert). With a complicated family background - his father, a cop on the take, committed suicide while his rich father-in-law considers him inferior - Bill places great emphasis on honesty. He wants to be a stand-up man, but is being tested to the point of no return in a society where there is no quarter given to those who stumble.

A chance meeting with a police detective in a bowling alley gives Bill a friendship that is a little more shaded. Frank (Jason Isaacs) says “I don’t make judgments,”, which is helpful, because a suicidal Bill is about to make a series of very bad choices, starting with an accidental hold-up in a show home, and escalating to armed robbery.

There are points in Things People Do where the viewer starts to question Bill’s basic intelligence, and, although he loves his wife Susan  (Vinessa Shaw), he enjoys such abysmally poor communication with her it’s not clear why they are even together. Is her character, an key part of the film, a symbol akin to Jessica Chastain’s mother figure in Tree Of Life? (Apart from being shot int the same way, they even look similar). There’s a sense that Klein and co-writer Joe Conway (Undertow) know Bill and Frank well and their scenes together and apart have an easy accessibility and flow. Susan, however, is under-written and elusive and the film suffers from a gap where she should be.

Klein shows a deft hand in several memorable dramatic scenes, including that with a garage station attendant (Haley Bennett), a hold-up where a man suffers a heart attack, and in the bank, where Bill’s plea for help is turned down. “We all bailed you out,” he tells the clerk, but nobody is listening.

Wes Bentley works hard with his difficult character and makes Bill sympathetic even when his choices are not, while Isaacs is excellent ballast as the world-weary detective. Producers Sarah Green and Hans Gruffunder, like Klein, have worked extensively with Malick, while cinematographer Matthias Koenigsweiser makes a noteworthy feature debut here. Music, from Mark Steitenfeld, also calls to mind Malick, with Chopin, Bach, even Bizet featuring in a string-based score. Locations, in particular, are vividly memorable even though they are shot through Koenigweiser’s arid, bleached lens and Chad Keith’s production design is equally a star of this show.

Production companies: Brace Cove Productions, Faliro House Productions

International sales: Celluloid Dreams, info@celluloid-dreams.com

Producers: Sarah Green, Hans Graffunder

Executive producers: Nicolas Gonda, Ryan Rettig, Michael Macs, Kurt Billick, David Klein, Doug Liman

Screenplay: Saar Klein, Joe Conway

Cinematography: Matthias Koenigwieser

Editors: Hank Corwin, Saar Klein

Production designer: Chad Keith

Music: Mark Streitenfeld

Main cast: Wes Bentley, Jason Isaacs, Vinessa Shaw, Haley Bennett