Preston Miller’s debut feature Jones commences with a still life (a commonplace hotel room, television at the center, observed from a slight view-askew) that is as seemingly nondescript as its title protagonist (Trey Albright), who enters the scene yammering away on a cellphone to his unseen/unheard pregnant wife. Initially, we only see Jones from the neck down and the knees up: as the scene progresses, it becomes clear that Miller is revealing his character by subtle layers and degrees.
Decked out, at first, in standard-issue business attire, Jones eventually strips to his underwear, pausing for a moment as if to take subconscious stock of his physique. (Tall, freckled, slightly fleshy, he’s the kind of guy who works out his arms to maintain a deceptively toned outward appearance.) His casual wear jeans-and-T-shirt ensemble just a step or two removed from form-fitting, there’s a discernible vanity to Jones’ manner, coupled with a distinct and perfectly understandable inferiority complex. The cherry on top: the pocket watch chain (at once a tether to married life and a malleable symbol of receding youth) that dangles from this paunchy thirtysomething’s belt into his pants pocket. Yet Miller isn’t out to burden his character with easy signifiers; as revealed by the end of this sequence, he’s out to gaze at Jones in all his recumbent mystery, not to define him in any definitively concrete way. Indeed, these decorative trinkets are more the accumulated products of Jones’ varied obsessions, markers along the way of a life less ordinary than a casual glance might at first suggest.
This unassuming Southern boy on his first trip to Manhattan harbors a fascinating inner life, one that he only reveals in coded, often unconscious snippets, driven by a deep-rooted attraction to all things Japanese. Talking up Cappy (Bob Cabrini), a deep-voiced blue collar, at a bar aptly named the Spaghetti Western, Jones cloaks his lowbrow intentions (to hire an Asian call girl from a free-weekly’s voluminous back-page sex advertisements) in highbrow camouflage (drunkenly namedropping Haruki Murakami and his work of sociological reportage, Underground).
Jones’ anxieties of both pop-cultural and sexual influence are inextricably intertwined, but the baser part of his nature pretty much always wins out. Like a good many of us, he’s slave to the needs of the present moment, though his experience of it is often fractured. Miller uses blackouts and jump cuts to suggest Jones’ typically soused sense of fish-out-of-water disorientation, though it’s never clear from the frequent looks of shock on his face if he’s snapping out of or waking up into a nightmare. Whether curiously wandering Times Square or getting lost during an extended ride on the Brooklyn-bound Q-train, Jones is at once an anonymous specter and an unwitting center of attention (to this end, even his brief struggle with the card-coded entrance to a 24-hour ATM is mortifyingly hilarious). Yet Miller isn’t laughing at Jones, and he makes certain we don’t either. Whenever the film’s observational aesthetic threatens to become too distanced and clinical, Miller throws a wrench in the works, effectively heightening his character’s mystery and drawing us deeper into his headspace.
Jones’ late-night encounter with a Taiwanese prostitute named Amber (Amy Chiang) is predictably awkward and embarrassing, made all the more so by the fearless, bare-it-all performances of both Albright and Chiang. Theirs is a cold business transaction not so far removed from Jones’ own day-job (as an on-the-record videographer for a droning contract lawyer), but at least there’s an orgasm involved. It might all be a pathetically depressing display were it not for the empathy Miller shows his protagonist’s point-of-view. Mid-penetration, Jones suddenly turns his head in shock, as if there’s another presence in the room. We don’t see what (or who) he sees until a few scenes later, after Jones falls asleep during a particularly dull stretch of his job. Miller’s implication is that, in the heat of the moment, even Jones is unaware of the vision before him—it takes a daydream to unlock (however temporarily) the many layers of his feverish, guilt-tinged subconscious. The outward puzzlement is addressed, but, more importantly, we are drawn nearer (deeply, subtly, affectingly) to this one-of-a-kind character.
The entirety of Jones plays as a sort of disquieting delusion. Miller and cinematographer Arsenio Assin favor languorous long takes and tracking shots that make full use of video’s tendencies towards haze and halo effect. Jones’ visit to a Queens-based brothel is suffused in grain—murky exteriors contrasting with harsh-lit interiors—lending the bizarre proceedings (involving the inopportune lactation of yet another business-minded escort) an even more mesmeric intensity. “I don’t even want to think about it,” says Jones at the conclusion of this sequence, as if he’s forcibly willing himself out of his compulsive dream-state. But it’s not so easy for him to rein in his obsessions, to claim the so-called moral high ground. Indeed, as suggested by the climactic sequence (set on the Newark Airport AirTrain, moving around in perpetuity as if on a life-size Möbius strip), Jones can never fully master his desires and proclivities. In some deeply entrenched way, Miller so profoundly suggests, he’ll always be coming and going.
This essay is included as the liner notes to the Jones DVD, available for purchase at the screenings and through writer/director Preston Miller’s official website, Vindaloo Philm-Wallah.
Keith Uhlich is co-editor of The House Next Door, the host of the podcast series “On the Circuit”, and a contributor to various online and print publications.