From the very beginning of Trust, Hal Hartley’s spellbinding second feature, snotty naïveté and cultured cynicism intertwine and dance in locked, hypnotic two-step. Just as teenaged Maria (Adrienne Shelly) tells her parents that she’s been knocked up by her high school’s alpha jock, leading her father to literally drop dead, Matthew (Martin Donovan) throws a tantrum of anti-technological philosophy in the repair division of a computer corporation where he works. While her idyllic future with quarterback Anthony comes crashing to the ground when he rejects her, Matthew remains stilted by his inability to cut ties with his abusive father (John MacKay). They meet-not-particularly-cute in an abandoned home and fall for each other in an odd, intriguingly deadpan way that underlines the unlikeliness of their union.
Like the romance that blooms between Donovan’s disillusioned thirtysomething and Shelly’s reformed teen-bopper, the film is strange in its very design, favoring a stunning use of imagistic symbolism over familiar dramatic lather; a Cape Holiday bumper sticker, Matthew’s heirloom grenade, and Maria’s spilled chicken soup are just as cathartic and revealing as anything they say to one another, if not more. If the story seems equally derivative of Hal Ashby and John Hughes, the tone and atmosphere of the film summons recollections of Bresson, and Godard’s more profound flirtations with familiarity, particularly Every Man for Himself.
Indeed, the film builds on concepts of compromise, growth, stagnation, and, most potently, rebellion, against both the accepted dirge of suburban workaday existence and the flaky anger and pomposity of educated artistry. Matthew is a skilled tradesman (he fixes computers and appliances), but his passionate belief in his work leads him to deeply despise the cheapness of consumerism and its effects on advancement. In this, Hartley offers a harsh rebuke to any sense of preciousness, as Matthew’s intellect is here both righteous and elitist. As such, Matthew is depicted as a sort of noble but posturing fool, able to attract Maria’s burgeoning fascinations and warmth as she begins to find her personal footing, but also prone to self-pity, self-loathing, and a repugnant strain of cynicism.
In essence, Matthew is more of a cautionary tale than Maria could ever be. Hartley consistently expresses an unerring fascination with women and the variety of opinions on mating, relationships, children, and, yes, love that are expressed give the film a remarkable breadth of character. Although Matthew’s relationship with his father is punctually tended to, it certainly doesn’t yield the ingenious bouts of conversing that go on between Maria, her mother, Jean (Rebecca Nelson), and her divorced sister, Peg (Edie Falco). One of the film’s best moments involves Maria asking Peg and one of her friend’s about marriage and kids, wherein the friend romanticizes life as a mother as Peg ambivalently refers to her children’s arrival as a good distraction from how bored she was with her husband.
As if splintering Maria’s future visually, the film is packed with women of varying backgrounds and traumas, including the abortion nurse who offers Maria a shot of whiskey before the operation and the teen mom who thoughtlessly parks her toddler, holding a bright-red toy gun, outside a bodega. The filmmaker skirts preciousness and pretentiousness in the directness of his language, the boldness of his imagery, and the percussive rhythm of his performers’ deliveries, but Trust is never cute and its whimsy is never taken as evasion of emptiness or of the more topical elements of the story. Hartley depicts Maria’s consideration of abortion as a thoroughly explored, purely personal decision, diffused of political or religious rhetoric, and in Matthew, the director-writer shows an elemental connection between the corporation’s lack of innovation and ethics and Matthew’s lack of respect for himself and his employer, which ultimately comes to violent ends.
The film’s title comes from a discussion between Matthew and Maria about how to define love, which they agree is equal parts admiration, respect, and trust. Maria trusts Matthew because he’s the only person who doesn’t use diatribes on progress and advancement as a way to condescend to her and make her a follower. And, of course, trust has always been an essential element of film, as the crew, the performers, and the audience can only fully engage with a director and their work if they trust the intentions and talent of the filmmaker in question. The key to Trust is that Hartley is never so naïve as to think that caprice is necessarily profound, nor is he so cynical to think that the familiar is inherently more enticing than the personal. In other words, his confidence in his art leads to a confidence in his audience, no matter who they might be or in what number they may appear.
More times than not, Olive Films skates by in terms of quality of their transfers because they're releasing rare films that often aren't even available on DVD. In this case, however, there's more than ample cause for celebration not only for the film, but for its A/V handling. Clarity is excellent and colors, from the neon pinks and greens Maria dons in the beginning to the moonlight blue that bathes Jean's kitchen during the drinking game, are consistently impressive. Black levels are nice and inky, and though there are some issues in terms of pigment, there's little sign of digital manipulation. The audio would have benefited from a surround treatment, but the film isn't a sonically dense one, so there are very few scenes where this is a genuine issue. The dialogue is crisp and clear out front, with sound effects, indie rock songs, and Philip Reed's synthy score blending well in the back.
It's bittersweet, to say the least, to see Adrienne Shelly, who was murdered in 2006, getting interviewed for this making-of featurette, which was her second pairing with friend Hal Hartley. The director is also interviewed, along with Martin Donovan and assistant director Ted Hope, and the interviews are informative enough, but offer little in the way of details about the production. A little more context for such a major work would have been appreciated.
Set on an alien Long Island, Trust arrives on Blu-ray from Olive Films with little extras, but offers an admirable A/V transfer that brings out the dormant beauty of Hartley's beguiling masterwork.