Ben Shenkman, Brian Cox, Burgess Jenkins, Carol Kane, cinema, con artists, Coupling, crime thriller, Darren Genet, directorial debut, dramas, film noir, film reviews, films, flashbacks, gangsters, golfing, grifters, Hugo Weaving, husband-wife relationship, independent films, insurance fraud, insurance salesman, Jack Davenport, Josh Noyes, Josh Pais, Judy Greer, Movies, period-piece, Peter Himmelstein, Robert Miller, scam, set in 1970s, split-screen, stylish films, The Key Man, writer-director
For my money, nothing beats a simple tale told well. Sure, there’s plenty of joy and value to be found in complex structures, eye-popping visual feasts and all-or-nothing editing extravaganzas: spectacle and cinema will always go hand-in-hand. There are times when there’s nothing finer than getting lost in the sturm und drang of a good, ol’ special effects bonanza, while, sometimes, you just want to see a film so complex and involving that it makes your forehead throb. There’s nothing wrong with big films but they’re also only half of the coin.
The other half of the coin, of course, are the smaller, subtler films: the quietly provocative indie dramas…the sparse, spare experimental films…the incisive character portraits and razor-sharp crime thrillers that don’t require flashy editing, huge explosions or pounding metal scores to make their points. These are films stripped down to their bare components, left to sink or swim by those old-fashioned standbys: absorbing characters, dramatic tension, smart dialogue and genuine emotional resonance. I may enjoy huge, noisy and stuffed-to-bursting event pictures but my heart will always belong to the same part of town that you’re most likely to find me hanging out: the quiet side.
Writer-director Peter Himmelstein’s The Key Man (2011) is a small, quiet film trapped inside a much flashier, more vapid one, the cinematic equivalent of one of David Byrne’s comically over-sized suits. At its heart, all of the components are in place for an effective, if modest, noirish crime thriller, something akin to a more po-faced Fargo (1996). Thanks to the ridiculously heavy-handed editing and visual flourishes like endless split-screens and out-of-place time-lapse photography, however, Himmelstein’s directorial debut ends up collapsing under the weight, burying the effective core under tons of pretty but useless rubble.
The film’s set-up is almost “Indie Crime Film 101” in its simplicity and familiarity: a down-on-his-luck insurance salesman with a wife and kids to feed gets involved with a pair of grifters and their scam to buy the Red Sox. The insurance salesman, Bobby (Coupling’s Jack Davenport), isn’t a bad guy but he is a desperate one: he’s just lost his oldest client right at the time when his wife, Karen (Judy Greer), is pushing to finally settle down and buy a home. Into his despair strides Vincent (Hugo Weaving) and Irving (Brian Cox), a pair of fast-talking, golf-playing con-men who want to enlist Bobby’s aid in a bit of insurance fraud: namely, they want to take out a “key man policy” on Vincent’s old partner, Charles (Burgess Jenkins), in order to bump him off and use the insurance payout to purchase their sports team.
As often happens, however, nothing goes quite according to plan and Bobby soon finds himself in way over his head. More and more people end up involved in what was supposed to be a fairly low-key event and Vincent and Irving gradually reveal themselves to be both unstable and dangerous, by turn. Will Bobby be able to see everything through to his big pay-day or will his conscience kick in and spoil the party? Most importantly: are Vincent and Irving the kinds of business partners that take “no” for an answer?
Deep down, at its heart, The Key Man is a decent, often quite effective, little noir/heist film, albeit one prone to particularly on-the-nose, expository dialogue. The acting is effective across the board, although Weaving’s flamboyant, sleazy Vincent will, undoubtedly, be the performance that sticks in the mind the longest: Davenport is fine, if rather vanilla, as Bobby, while Cox gets a few over-the-top blow-outs that tend to lessen the final impression of his otherwise impressive Irving. Greer’s Karen is a bit less effective, although that’s never due to the performance: her motivations always seem a bit off, however, making the character play out more as a plot element than actual flesh-and-blood person.
While the particulars of the scam aspect were a bit foggy to this particular viewer (insurance fraud sounds sexier than it really is), everything fell into place with a nice sense of purpose and irony that often felt perilously close to approximating a Hitchcockian vibe. Several scenes, such as the one where Bobby races home only to find Vincent acting the perfect gentleman with his family or the one where Vincent does a bit of impromptu Shakespeare, have nicely realized senses of tension that yield fairly thrilling payoffs.
Indeed, all of the pieces are in place for The Key Man to be a real sleeper, the kind of low-budget micro-masterpiece that coulda/woulda/shoulda been a contender. Practically from the opening credits, however, the film is almost completely hamstrung by one crucial element: the overly busy, fussed-with editing and over-used tricks like split-screens tend to drown out every other aspect of the film.
The biggest offender here is the damnable split-screen, an effect that’s used so much as to approach the level of SNL-type parody. Truth be told, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that uses as many split-screens as The Key Man does: hell, even the above poster art is set up as a kind of split screen…it’s practically wired into the film’s DNA. When used in moderation (or for an actual purpose), there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with a split-screen: it’s just another filmmaking tool like any other. When the split-screen begins to call attention to itself outside of the actual film framework, however, this feels a bit like the cart dragging the horse. There’s one instantly memorable moment where multiple split-screens fly around the central frame until to unite into one screen that becomes Vincent’s face: it’s silly, flashy and, ultimately, very pointless, the very definition of style for style’s sake.
While the split-screens are the biggest offenders, they’re not the only ones. There are also numerous instances of needless time-lapses, in-camera focus changes, out-of-focus images, you name it, that tend to pull attention off of what the film is trying to say and puts it squarely on how the film is saying it. There are certain films that can employ an “everything and the kitchen sink” approach – Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Wrong (2012) come immediately to mind – and work spectacularly, allowing the medium and the message to come together in complete harmony. The Key Man is not one of those films. Here, the low-key, engaging crime thriller aspect is completely over-shadowed by the flashy editing and the split-screens.
Perhaps the split-screens are by way of helping to sell the era (the film takes place in 1975) but that also becomes a bit of an issue: rather than feeling organic, the time-period in The Key Man always feels forced, as if the filmmakers need to constantly remind us of where we are. Karen reads a copy of Jaws, they watch Johnny Carson on TV, outfits get almost as much screen-time as actors, the score is the kind of jazzy funk that underlined a million ’70s-era cop shows…over time, it feels less like we’re immersed in an actual era than an Ikea showroom dedicated to more “happenin'” times.
There’s no doubt that Himmelstein has some skill behind the camera, both directing and scriptwise. While the dialogue was often too obvious, the actual setup had enough twists and turns to justify the above Hitchcock reference, even if infrequently. There’s something about a good grift/heist film that’s almost irresistible and The Key Man often scratches that itch quite ably. In fact, I daresay that a no-frills, stripped-to-the-bone version of this same film would score quite a bit higher on my personal meter: there’s a lot to like here, despite how infuriating much of the over-stuffing becomes. Ultimately, it’s easy to look at this as a case of “first-time-around-the-block-blues”: as a debut, The Key Man has a lot to recommend it but it also fails in some pretty fundamental ways. Here’s to hoping that, the next time around, Himmelstein and company go a little easier on the frosting and give the actual cake a chance to shine.