Simple Men Review
“There's no such thing as adventure. There's no such thing as romance. There's only trouble and desire.”
In the middle of a robbery, Bill McCabe (Robert Burke) finds himself double-crossed by his comrades, which include his girlfriend. Meanwhile, his brother Dennis (William Sage) is determined to track down their father, an ex baseball hero turned anarchist revolutionary and now on the run. On the way, they encounter Kate (Karen Sillas), a bar owner with whom Bill falls in love, and Elina (Elina Löwensohn), a young Romanian woman with a connection to their father...
Hal Hartley's first two features, The Unbelievable Truth and Trust, both had female leads, played by the late Adrienne Shelly. For his third feature, Simple Men he changed tack: two male leads, and a film specifically about how men relate...to their brothers, to their fathers, and especially to women, especially how they misunderstand them. He had written an early version of the script in the mid-1980s, and in the wake of Trust - a film where he felt he put his female protagonist on a pedestal – he returned to this project. In the two main roles were Robert Burke and William Sage (now more usually billed as Robert John Burke and Bill Sage), both of whom had an association with Hartley from as far back as The Unbelievable Truth.
If this is a shift in subject matter, there's no mistaking this film for anyone else's work. While Michael Spiller's camerawork remains sharp and naturalistic – though making use of some solid blocks of bold colours in the frame – from the outset, with the actors' stylised delivery and dialogue, including several examples of deliberately varied repetition, we are at one remove from any kind of naturalism, with everything in quotes, as it were. Bill and Dennis see the world differently, Bill defining it as something he can take from (and pay the price if he's caught), the more intellectual beta-male Dennis questioning it. Angry at his girlfriend's betrayal, Bill wants to hate women and vows to fuck and dump the first one he meets. But Kate is more than a match for him. Simple Men begins and ends with the same two words of dialogue - “Don't move” - which implies stasis, circularity, lack of progression. But that's not the case: if only for a moment (and no spoilers as to why that should be so) Bill has found calm and acceptance. If that shows Hartley the formalist at work, Hartley the cineaste is also present, especially in a dance sequence, set to Sonic Youth's “Kool Thing”, halfway through which explicitly alludes to Godard's Bande à part - not forgetting a dance in his earlier mid-length film Surviving Desire. There's also an in-joke in the role played by Jeffrey Taylor, referred to in the credits as “Ned Rifle” (though just “Ned” on screen), the pseudonym used by Hartley as his own music-score composer. The music score is a highlight, dominated by bluesy electric guitar, and other than the already-mentioned Sonic Youth there are songs from Yo La Tengo from the soundtrack.
As before, Hartley's films can be an acquired taste, and some may find them too much of the head and too little of the heart. But the heart is there below the surface. Simple Men may well be Hartley's best film.
Simple Men is released on both Blu-ray and DVD by Artificial Eye. This is a review of the BD edition. Affiliate links for the DVD can be found here.
The Blu-ray is presented in a ratio of 1.78:1, opened up from the intended 1.85:1. (The IMDB says 1.66:1, a ratio which Hartley did use later for Henry Fool, but I'm not sure that is correct.) While Simple Men was made on a higher budget than Hartley's earlier work, it was still on a lowish budget, and the film is notably grainy, though it's grain that is natural and filmlike. As with Artificial Eye's other Hartley Blu-rays, this is a very solid transfer, with colours and skintones as they should be, and solid blacks and good shadow detail.
As late as 1992, Hartley was one of the few people still making 35mm films with mono soundtracks, and that's the source of the LPCM 2.0 soundtrack on this disc. There are certainly no issues with it – dialogue, sound effects and music are clear and well balanced – but this is a disc which will only give your centre speaker any work to do. What may be more of an issue is that there are no hard-of-hearing subtitles available for this English-language film.
There are two extras, both presented in 4:3. “Upon Reflection: Simple Men” (16:22) is a featurette produced in 2005, presumably along with the similar piece included on the Unbelievable Truth disc. This comprises interviews with Hartley, Burke, producer Ted Hope and Martin Donovan, in which they discuss the making of the film and its themes.
A fuller interview is found on “Trouble and Desire: An Interview with Hal Hartley” (39:18), made by Eileen Anipare and Jason Wood in 1998. This ranges over Hartley's career to date, including his short films (all shown in clips from what look like VHS copies), and includes discussion of his themes and methods. For the record, the favourite of his films up to that point was Flirt and his least favourite Surviving Desire.