I only recently heard about the death of Adrienne Shelly. I feel bad because it happened in 2006 and I’d let her slip from my memory. In the early 90s I had a medium-sized crush – and her picture on my student wall. Chances are you haven’t heard of her, because she never broke into the Hollywood big leagues. Shelly started her career a young, sweet and spunky actress working in low-budget and short films. Later she added directing to her resumé.
Tragically, just before the release of Waitress, her biggest film as director, she died when strangled in her New York apartment by an opportunist thief. The killer, in a perversely filmic touch, managed to dress the scene so it appeared she’d hanged herself. Shelly’s husband and young daughter believed this for only 19 days until her remorseful murderer handed himself in.
Of Shelly’s acting work the best was under the directorship of Hal Hartley. And my favourite of those films is Trust.
The first thing to say about Trust is that work is required on the part of the viewer. This isn’t a criticism but a warning for anyone new to the films of Hal Hartley. The characters all speak with the voice of the director; it’s you who will invest them with a personality distinct from their creator. Let me explain:
Hartley’s style is to direct his actors to speak their lines without betraying emotion. In turn the audience has nowhere to go but to project their own emotions, back-stories and desires onto them. None of the conventions of film drama delivery are followed. This is Hartley’s universe and that makes it hard to break the layer of stylistic veneer he has brushed over this film. When you put away your preconceptions, fall into the groove and go with it, Trust is a cinematic treat that will have you eagerly hunting down more by this director.
The script is cynical and glacially cool, each character speaking with the same enigmatic voice – Hartley’s voice. Everyone knows the cleverest thing to say at any given moment. There are no pauses, ponderings or any kind of tic that might have a parallel in the ‘real world’. And all of this is delivered to a mostly static camera – a camera that plays no active role in the narrative except to record the events and leave you to fill in the rest. A similar process can be seen in the films of David Mamet but the plot of Trust is less arch than, for example, Mamet’s House of Game and without any of the twists and turns in the plot. But both regard film as an extension of the theatre stage, delivering complex, wordy scripts with a passive eye for motion.
Hartley casts the charismatic but criminally underrated Martin Donovan as television engineer Matthew Slaughter – a brooding, violent loner, who carries a live grenade at all times “just in case”. Matthew is an unnaturally talented repairer of electronics but finds himself unemployed after forcing his boss’s head into a vice. His anger is exceeded only by that of his controlling father, who keeps their house spotlessly clean. This violent paternal OCD propels Matthew from the house and into a chance encounter.
Adrienne Shelly plays the immature and pregnant high-school girl, Maria. Life is turned around for her when she announces her pregnancy to her family. Maria’s father calls her a slut; she slaps him and he drops dead on the spot of a heart attack. All very cold, all very Hartley. Turned out of the house by her mother and abandoned by her jock boyfriend, she is found by Matthew and reluctantly opens up to him. Luckily Matthew’s overbearing father has left town for a few days allowing him to offer Maria place to stay. She repays him by discarding her clothes and cigarette butts all over the house. When the father returns the ensuing violence forces them both out onto the street again. A frustrated Matthew walks into and out of his thankless television repair job, spitting bile at the world. Only in the face of Maria’s determination to have her baby does he calm down and recognise a fellow pariah.
On the surface the story of a pregnant girl being turfed out onto the streets may sound an unoriginal premise, but Hartley peppers the whole thing with asides and nuances that take the film to an unexpected place. Look at the scene in which a family friend gives an unexpected speech about how great it is to be pregnant – strangely incongruous given the context of the film. Another scene at the train station presents us with a group of men who all resemble Jaques Tati. Trust is not afraid to be surreal and, in doing so, avoids any detraction in not confronting head-on the abortion protesters that rear their heads when Maria visits a clinic. The fact that she decides to have her baby and then changes her mind when she falls in ‘love’ is stated simply, and the film never condemns or endorses her decisions.
Maria’s use of the ‘c’ word in the abortion clinic, when discussing how her previous boyfriend sees her as a “thing”, is one rare moment of true shock. For one thing it seems unlike Hartley to use the word itself but very much his style in that it is delivered so nonchalantly. It prefigures the use of this word in American Beauty almost a decade later; coming again from the mouth of a high-school girl delivered similarly, in an everyday manner. The teenage pregnancy plot also reminds us of Juno, but Hartley’s world is darker and spikier than that adolescent fable.
Motherhood plays a central role in Trust and not just Maria’s impending birth. From Matthew’s absent mother whose dress Maria later wears, to Maria’s own controlling mother who throws her daughter out for murdering her husband, only to let her and Matthew return in a moment of compassion. As we discover, this is a ruse to let her try to set up Matthew with her older daughter Peg (played by a young Edie Falco from The Sopranos and Hartley’s 2005 film The Girl From Monday).
What’s surprising is the real beauty and charm that leaps out of this artifice as Matthew and Maria’s relationship develops. When they discuss the nature of love and trust in Hartley’s clipped dialogue, you sense that these characters genuinely care for each other; although the style works against them, the power of the relationship draws us back. One theory I have is that, despite himself, Hartley allows the actors to sneak in elements of real emotion through his own almost fascistic methods of film making. It may seem far-fetched but Hartley’s work is so knowing and so carefully constructed it seems a moment of weakness from him that he ever allowed these characters to become so likeable.
Trust is a rare commodity: an independent film dealing with society’s outcasts that beats with a real heart at its core. Adrienne Shelly plays a tenacious and stubborn character with great strength and presence; a reminder of a talented life cut tragically short.
Trust is available on DVD from Artificial Eye at all good retailers.
The Adrienne Shelly Foundation promotes women in filmmaking. More information can be found at their website.
Steve Thompson is a writer, cartoonist and film critic. Follow him on Twitter.