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‘Trust’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 16, 1991

In "Trust" the world has quietly foundered without anyone noticing. The characters in Hal Hartley's absorbing suburban-angst nightmare seem hypnotized or demented. They're the collective butt of some existential joke -- but no one's omniscient enough to enjoy the punch line.

Occasionally they burst into rage or swing fists at each other. In one case, a licentious counter clerk pulls a woman into the back of the store, only to get a burning cigarette rammed into his eye. But these outbursts are melodramatic punctuation marks in an otherwise imperceptible sentence of doom. Life just goes on, and it's equally as horrible in the office or on the street as it is at home.

For Long Island high school senior Maria (the one with the cigarette), life is in a downward spiral. Barely five minutes into the movie, her father dies of a heart attack -- thanks to Maria's bombshell declaration that she's pregnant, she intends to marry her boyfriend and she wants to drop out of school. Her mother (Merritt Nelson), who'll never forgive Maria (Adrienne Shelly) for the death, is an embittered, manipulative taskmaster. Maria's divorced sister Peg (Edie Falco) lost her kids to her ex-husband.

Meanwhile, inner-tormented Matthew (Martin Donovan) is suffering the external horrors of a quality-heedless computer assembly plant. He's also weathering the psychotic rages of his bullying, blue-collar father (John MacKay) at home.

Completely alienated from their personal lives, these two are made for each other. Maria's boyfriend has backed out of his responsibilities. Matthew has quit his job. After some nihilistic tail-sniffing, they begin a tentative partnership. It gets closer and closer to love, as they find themselves united against a common enemy -- everyone else. Matthew, in some postpunk version of loving sympathy, offers to marry her, so the child doesn't have to be aborted.

Hartley gradually steers things towards some kind of resolution, a sort of Bonnie and Clyde finale, as conceived by Samuel Beckett and Jean-Luc Godard. He also shares Godard's taste for absurd coincidence. A female stranger who comforts down-and-out Maria turns out to be a baby kidnaper; the story is later emblazoned over the newspapers. In one of his strange funks, Matthew blazes into a bar, punches the same liquor store clerk who made a pass at Maria and sweeps Maria's ex-boyfriend off a bar stool. A woman sitting at the bar tries picking him up. She happens to be Maria's sister.

The meat of Hartley's movie is its running (or sleepwalking) commentary, the deadpan dialogue between people. He is not always successful. "Trust," an ameliorization of his debut "The Unbelievable Truth," comes in bursts of satiric success -- but also pretension. The movie sometimes seems existentially smart-alecky, in the grand tradition of David Mamet:

"He's dead," says Maria's mother monotonally over her husband's body. "You killed him. Get out of my house."

More often, though, Hartley's approach works beautifully. Asked why he's morosely watching television, Matthew replies: "I had a bad day. I had to subvert my principles and kowtow to an idiot. Television makes these daily sacrifices possible, deadens the inner core of my being."

"Let's move away then," suggests Maria.

"They have televisions everywhere," says Matthew. "There's no escape."

Shelly, who looks like an Arquette sister, plays Maria with a fetching, waiflike quality. Maria's savvy enough to know when someone's taking her for a ride. But there's also a naive quality. Despite her baggage of trouble, life always seems to surprise her.

Sullen, handsome Matthew (a cross between Andrew McCarthy and Jeff Bridges) is clearly speaking for director Hartley.

"A family's like a gun," he states. "You point it in the wrong direction and you're going to kill somebody."

Even with overly obvious statements like this, "Trust" is always interesting. And always interesting, as someone once said, is always good.

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