I saw Trust, Hal Hartley’s second film, during its original theatrical run back in 1990. It become something of a personal milestone, if only because it was probably the first film I saw at the Angelika Theater in the East Village. Just like Nevermind, it represented an introduction to the “alternative” culture of the 1990s, the end of the conformism of the 1980s. It’s not a widely known film, but it has influenced independent, and even mainstream cinema. If you pay attention to movie posters, you will recognize many homages to its quietly iconic final scene. I was curious, therefore, to see how well it would hold up.
The question turned out to be more difficult that I had anticipated. Trust has a number of strengths, one or two glaring weaknesses, and a style that, depending on your inclinations, you’ll either love or hate. As the film opens, we meet Maria Coughlin, a 17-year-old high-school student who lives in working class, Lindenhurst on Long Island. Maria, played by the late Adrienne Shelly, is the prototypical guidette, a Jersey Shore character long before reality shows even existed. When she announces to her father that she’s pregnant, that she’s dropping out of high-school and getting married, he grabs his chest and dies of a heart attack. In one stroke, we are introduced to Hal Hartley’s signature style. Trust is both realistic — if you’re a working-class New York area white ethnic you know people who look and sound exactly like Maria and her parents — and self-consciously stylized. What if our deepest thoughts immediately became physical reality?
Part of the reason Trust had such an impact on me back in 1990 is precisely this, the way Hal Hartley obliterates the distinction between our inner lives and our environment. In the 1980s, Hollywood films regularly portrayed teenagers as fully mature, socially adept adults. Think Matthew Broderick in Ferris Bueller or James Spader in Pretty in Pink. There were few, if any “misfits” I wanted to identify with. You were either one of the popular crowd, or you were the comic relief, an outlandish nerd or geek. But real high-school kids are, more often than not, so wrapped up in their own inner worlds that their position in the social hierarchy matters less than adults think it does. The 24-year-old Shelly, and the 33 year-old Martin Donovan, who plays Trust’s “hero” Matthew Slaughter, were some of the first genuinely believable depictions of young people I had ever seen on the big screen. They not only had rich inner lives, the boundaries between their inner lives and the world around them were blurred, fluid, constantly evolving. What’s more, the film’s self-consciously stylized aesthetic, combined with working-class Irish Catholic characters who lived in the suburbs of New York City, flattered my own, unstable sense of identity. Who was I? What did I want to become? That people who looked and sounded like me, people who had parents who reminded me of my own, could star in a feature length film that played at The Angelika in the East Village convinced me that maybe my own experiences could be mediated through the creative, artistic discipline of cinema.
Trust is also one of those extraordinarily rare films that will appeal both to feminists, and to “nice guys.” It passes the Bechdel Test. Women actually talk to one another, and not only about men. But the geek in this film is not only tall and handsome, he has women competing for his attention. Matthew Slaughter, an electronics genius who appears to be somewhere in his late 20s, lives with his violent, abusive, and obsessive compulsive working-class father. He has trouble holding down a job, not because of a lack of ability, but because of his integrity. He quits one position because he won’t install inferior motherboards in a high priced computer. He quits another because he doesn’t want to work on television sets. TV is brainwashing. At home, his father treats him like a slave, making him clean the already clean bathroom over and over again, lecturing him about how worthless and selfish he is, punching him in the stomach when he doesn’t feel the point is getting through. So why doesn’t Matthew find a job he likes, apply himself, and move out? Hartley makes it clear that this isn’t about child abuse. Martin Donovan is in his 30s. The actor who plays his father is probably in his mid-40s. They don’t look remotely alike. In other words, Matthew’s father isn’t really his father. He’s just another abusive authority figure. He embodies, not parental authority, but the idea that, while a working-class man can quit his job, it doesn’t mean he escapes from the system.
I also think that, whether or not he’s doing it consciously, Hartley wrote Matthew Slaughter as mildly autistic. Matthew has trouble looking his father in the eye. His responses are flat and without affect. He may look and sound neurotypical. His low status combined with his high intelligence indicates that he’s not. What’s more, Hartley’s dialogue constructs Trust’s imaginary Lindenhurst from the point of view of a high-functioning Aspie. Hartley’s characters don’t make small-talk. They speak their subconscious thoughts immediately, and out loud. They also talk right past one another. After Maria’s mother kicks her out of the house — for killing her father — she meets an apparently sympathetic middle-aged woman at the bus stop. She doesn’t notice that the woman is not only insane, but a child snatcher plotting to steal another woman’s baby.
The utopian moment of Trust, the glimpse of a better world lurking underneath dreary, working-class Long Island, comes when Maria and Matthew run into each other by chance. They are immediately revealed to be soul mates. They say what they think, but they don’t speak past each other. When Matthew hints that he’s suicidal, Maria gets right to the point and asks him if he’s emotionally disturbed. Instead of hiding behind her pride, she immediately tells him she’s been kicked out of her home, and needs a place to stay. Matthew, in turn, offers her shelter without hesitating, even if it means provoking his sadistic father. It never occurs to him to consider how it would “look” for a 29 or 30 year old man to be bringing home a pregnant 17-year-old as if she were a stray kitten. His intentions are perfectly asexual anyway. “I don’t love you,” he says. “I admire and respect you. That’s better than love.” He’s ready to help her raise another man’s child, not because he feels it’s his obligation, but because it’s finally given him a purpose in life. He goes back to his old company and asks for his job back. “I want a real, career type job,” he says, “with benefits and a pension.” Matthew is smart enough to realize that his working-class life s going nowhere, but he has enough soul to understand that it means he has to create some meaning for himself. Raising Maria’s child is as good as anything else.
If I opened my review by saying that the question of whether or not Trust holds up after 25 years is more difficult than I realized, it’s partly because the film’s biggest strength, its stylized dialogue, is also its biggest weakness. Martin Donovan’s self-consciously flat style of acting is almost perfect for the role of Matthew Slaughter. But Trust is not Matthew’s story. It’s Maria’s. Without Adrienne Shelly the film would have probably just seemed boring and disjointed, another pretentious independent film without any real point. Shelly — who was murdered by a construction worker in her West Village office back in 2006 — had a gift for infusing her characters with an emotional depth that often transcended the parts as they were written. It’s not only Maria’s look that changes it’s her outlook, her level of maturity, her understanding.
The problem is that Shelly, and a young Eddie Falco — who plays her older sister Peg — are such good actors it’s disappointing to see them straitjacketed by Hartley’s stylized dialogue. There are characters — like Maria’s mother — we wish were either more sympathetic or, if set up as villains, played as villains. Indeed, when Maria’s mother suggests Matthew would be better hooking up with Peg, it’s presented as a betrayal of her younger daughter, but we can’t help but see her point. One of the best scenes in the film comes when Matthew and Peg, who’s not yet aware that he’s already taken her sister home to live, meet up in a bar. Donovan and Falco play effortlessly off each other, their combination of sexual attraction and hostility not only seems like it’s part of another film. It gets Hartley’s scriptwriting out of the way altogether. Had Hartley allowed it to go on, for his two actors to improvise the way John Cassevetes would have done, the film might have transcended the stylized quality that prevents it from becoming a genuine masterpiece.
The ending of Trust somehow manages to be heartbreaking, frustrating, and deeply unsatisfying, all at the same time. Maria’s mother gets Matthew drunk and puts him in bed with Peg. Maria feels betrayed and has an abortion. Matthew tries to commit suicide in public with the hand grenade his father brought home from the Korean War, the one he carries with him everywhere he goes “just in case.” He fails. The grenade is a dud, but, since he’s effectively held most of the employees at his old job hostage, he won’t be a free man for very long. Just before the police drag Matthew off to jail, Maria arrives on the scene to tell him she forgives him. They reconcile. Why? Maria betrayed the central premise of the film, that trust, admiration and respect are better than love, by having the abortion. She killed her unborn child because she was jealous of her sister. The police become, in effect, a deus ex machina that saves Hartley from having to write the deeply unhappy ending his script called for. He likes Matthew and Maria too much to let their story play out. The barriers to their love become, not each other, but straw men. Maria’s mother and sister, Matthew’s father, the police, Matthew’s old boss, none of them could tear a pair of soul mates apart. It reveals Hartley’s snobbery towards his own working-class upbringing. His hero and heroine are just too precious for the world they live in. It’s a cheap ending to an otherwise rich, complex, and humanistic film.