Hal Hartley, Trust, 1990, 35 mm, color, sound, 107 minutes. Matthew Slaughter and Maria Coughlin (Martin Donovan and Adrienne Shelly).

HAL HARTLEY’S second feature, Trust (1990), has aged gracefully: Its left-handed ambiguities, quizzical juxtapositions, wryly twisted symmetries, blank wit, askance plotting, pungently sketchy characters, and subversive understatement have taken on the stature of a recondite landmark. The iconic performances of Martin Donovan and the late, profoundly missed Adrienne Shelly feel like Long Island’s flatly blue-collar answer to Belmondo and Karina: a half-cocked, mixed-motive duo that bond over abusive parents, mutual despair, word definitions, a parched thirst for knowledge, and a hand grenade. Their sputtering, circuitous, stop-motion chemistry culminates in just about the most oddly romantic denouement of late-twentieth-century cinema—a low-key, high-stakes burst of seriocomic transcendence.

An early indication of the rise of American indie filmmaking, Trust established Hartley as the go-to guy for hard-to-define post-genre exercises. There are the visual/tonal references to Bresson and Godard wedded to vernacular speech and the knockabout vicissitudes of working-class life. There are the sidelong detours (the protagonists’ search for a woman who may have kidnapped a baby). There’s the persistent erosion of the line between the funny and the tragic, the absurd and the poetic, randomness and interconnectedness, without disavowing either end of those tricky equations. Trust was a hard film to read initially, because Hartley’s out-of-the-blue style is at once so head-on and so oblique—it takes a while to pick up where Trust is coming from, to fully take in how utilitarian Hartley’s technique really is.

When he schematically frames a scene à la Godard or invokes the pared-down affect of Bresson, it isn’t with film-school showiness but rather the brusque efficacy of a handyman reaching into his toolbox for the right implement, finding the proper angle with the least clutter, the maximum impact with minimal fuss. It’s all a process of distillation, boiling things down to essentials: loneliness, suffering, endurance, surprise. So along with the diffused stuff of family trauma and even noir mystery, Hartley will unobtrusively insert Tatiesque sight gags (Donovan’s bull-in-a-china-shop barreling past a motley line-up waiting to get their decrepit TVs repaired, or the sleuthing pair trying to pick a needle out of a haystack of M. Hulot commuters). All in a day’s work, locating the congruencies tucked away inside the incongruous everyday.

On a sliding continuum between Raoul Walsh’s Me and My Gal (1932) and David O’ Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, Trust is definitely closer to the former’s primitive-sophisticated stew of slapstick melodrama, sardonic social asides, tough cookies (Joan Bennett, yowza), good Irish eggs (Spencer Tracy, never livelier), and two or three orphan subplots (not to mention a startlingly hip, revue-style mini-parody of Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude that would be equally at home in Masculin Féminin or on SCTV). Trust rewrites the movie playbook with casual underdog panache, alternating short punchy scenes with long ruminative takes, whereas the coy Silver Linings serves up its mildly agitated, retro-luncheonette romance like Dancing with the Stars on a deep-fried shingle. Shelly’s Maria is an encyclopedia of untapped intelligence and emotional resources: Whether foiling a would-be rapist with a lit cigarette to the eye or purposefully striding through a fleeing factory mob to save Donovan’s Matthew from himself and his trusty grenade, she’s an eminently unsentimental and believable heroine. Karen Sillas’s Nurse Paine’s square-shouldered walk past the abortion clinic protesters on her way to her job there (then, after sitting down, pouring herself and client Maria a stiff drink) conveys the same resolve, while Matthew’s battering-ram gait has the impracticable comic-strip charm of Popeye exiled to the badlands of Nowheresville, New York.

Hartley called his first film The Unbelievable Truth and here he really nails the interaction between the ironies of devalued lives and their residual possibility of overcoming set limitations of circumstance, birth, bad luck, bad timing, et al. Grace is maybe too fancy a term for it. In Trust, it’s more of an unblinking emotional tenacity that opens up these damaged, inchoate souls to the transformative effect of each other’s tenderness. It’s a highly particularized film that uses allegorical devices as a way of working out issues from Hartley’s past by creating an objective perspective on misbegotten events. Sometimes three little words are worth a thousand pictures. When Maria asks Matthew why the hell he carries that grenade around with him at all times, he answers reasonably: “Just in case.”

Howard Hampton

Trust is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Olive Films.