“Dad, give me five dollars.”
The opening line of writer/director Hal Hartley's “Trust” is delivered in a monotone by Adrienne Shelly, as she applies purple lipstick and stares blankly into a compact mirror. It's a striking shot that establishes everything you need to know about her character Maria — a high school dropout and case study in youthful entitlement and vanity.
Over a career spanning three decades Hartley has been an amazingly prolific filmmaker, directing a total of 15 features and 18 shorts. Unlike many of his late '80s/early '90s indie contemporaries (Quentin Tarantino, Gus Van Sant, Richard Linklater, et al), he has never catered to mainstream tastes, and his work has been greeted by the public in kind. He is known for creating stylized worlds that feel somehow hermetic and worldly, stilted and soulful, in films ranging from 1992's “Simple Men” to 1997's “Henry Fool,” and its a mixture that doesn't appeal to every palate. “Trust” was Hartley's second feature after 1989's “The Unbelievable Truth” (also starring Shelly), and it won him the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival.
The film's other main character is Matthew Slaughter (Hartley's frequent muse Martin Donovan), a moody electronics repairman who quits his job the same day Maria's father drops dead of a heart attack — a blackly comic turn that comes in the film's first two minutes, just after she announces she's pregnant with the child of her football player boyfriend. Maria is thrown out of the house by her grieving mother, Matthew stalks off the job and the two end up in the same abandoned house, where they begin the process of forming a deep connection based not on love but “respect and admiration” and — as the title lays out — trust.
Hartley's dialogue owes a debt to the screwball comedies and film noirs of old, where every character had just the right quip to dole out at any given moment. The lines in “Trust” hit like little pearls of wit. “Family's like a gun — you point it in the wrong direction, you're gonna kill somebody,” Matthew opines. “I had a bad day, I had to subvert my principles and kowtow to an idiot,” he says later. “Television makes these daily sacrifices possible.” Donovan and that late Shelly (who was murdered by a construction worker in her Greenwich Village work studio in 2006) are the perfect actorly vehicles to deliver Hartley's vision; both manage to suggest the wounded inner core of their characters while demonstrating the highly specific talents necessary for Hartley's offbeat dialogue.
It's clear from the start that the characters inhabit a heightened version of our own world, but as the film goes along there is a deeply human component revealed beneath the personas Matthew and Maria have created for themselves in order to survive — scowly misanthrope and gum-popping airhead, respectively. The feelings of ennui and disillusionment they experience come from a place of real emotional pain; there is a quietly heartbreaking but hopeful scene about midway through in which Maria, newly humble and with her once-crimped hair pulled back in a sensible ponytail, writes the following lines in her journal: “I am ashamed. I am ashamed of being young. I am ashamed of being stupid.” Hartley lingers on this moment, and in doing so imbues it with a quiet power. What we are witnessing is nothing less than the awakening of a soul.
The supporting cast is equally great. Future “Sopranos” wife Edie Falco matches Donovan barb for barb as Maria's sassy older sister Peg, who voices her resignation to the status quo during the following exchange with Maria:
Maria: “Do you miss your kids?”
Maria: “Do you hate your husband?”
Maria: “Would you ever get married again?”
Peg: “Of course.”
The film's two other major characters — Matthew's abusive father Jim (John MacKay) and Maria's hard-bitten mother Jean (Merritt Nelson) — also make an impression, particularly Jean, a pent-up ball of anger who holds a sharp kitchen knife just inches from Maria's face while tersely offering to fix her dinner.
One other key player here is the music, which features peppy contributions from rock band The Great Outdoors and composer Philip Reed's somber score. The latter is a perfect synthesis with Hartley's portrait of youthful disaffection and, in the stirring final scene, hope for renewal. The film ends on a note of windswept ambiguity that casts aside all artifice to find Maria staring bravely forward, into an uncertain future she is finally ready to face.