(Soundbite of music)
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Bette Gordon is known to some moviegoers for her 1984 indie film Variety, about a woman who takes tickets at a porn theater and becomes obsessed with watching men watch women.
Her new film Handsome Harry is about male sexuality. It stars Jamey Sheridan as the title character and features Campbell Scott, Steve Buscemi, John Savage and Aidan Quinn.
Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: One way to think of Bette Gordon's Handsome Harry is as a revenge movie turned backwards and inside out. That is, the bad guys take revenge on themselves. Thirty-three years after they did a very bad thing, they're still eaten away by guilt, and one of them goes on a kind of pilgrimage to ask forgiveness from the person who was violated.
The pilgrim is Harry, once dubbed "Handsome Harry," a divorced Albany, New York contractor played by a brilliant actor named Jamey Sheridan. He has a long, somewhat flat face that can seem a mask of blandness or take on, in the movie's shadowy lighting, a faintly satanic cast. It's the face of a man with a secret, and also, perhaps, of a man who keeps secrets from himself.
Shortly after his 52nd birthday, Harry receives a call from an old Navy buddy on his deathbed - Kelley, played by Steve Buscemi. A long time ago, Harry, Kelley and three others drunkenly brutalized a fellow sailor, Kagan, they learned was gay. In his hospital bed, Kelley's memories flood back.
(Soundbite of movie, Handsome Harry)
Mr. STEVE BUSCEMI (Actor): (as Tommy) You remember the night Kagan took us to the Five Spot and you two busted my (bleep) because I never heard jazz before?
Mr. JAMEY SHERIDAN (Actor): (as Harry) Yeah.
Mr. BUSCEMI: (as Tommy) Tell you, that was the most beautiful (bleep) sound I ever heard. In fact, that was one of the best nights I've ever had in my whole entire miserable life. To tell you the truth, Harry, I'm not even that sorry see it end. I just dont want to go to hell.
Mr. SHERIDAN: (as Harry) Youre not going to hell.
Mr. BUSCEMI: (as Tommy) You dont know that. I'm pretty sure it was me who (bleep) Kagan so bad.
Mr. SHERIDAN: (as Harry) All five of us did that.
Mr. BUSCEMI: (as Tommy) I think I was the one who dropped that generator on his hand.
Mr. SHERIDAN: (as Harry) Are you sure?
Mr. BUSCEMI: (as Tommy) Harry, just tell him I'm sorry. Please?
Mr. SHERIDAN: (as Harry) I will.
Mr. BUSCEMI: (as Tommy) You promise?
Mr. SHERIDAN: (as Harry) I promise, Tommy.
EDELSTEIN: Prompted by Kelley's death, Harry visits one old Navy mate, and then another and another, heading south toward Miami, where the victim, Kagan, lives. The structure is a little plodding. There's a buried secret, but it's broadly telegraphed. But the movie's flaws in the end recede. Each of Harry's encounters is strange, gripping and revelatory. None of these men has put that night behind him. Yet none has coped with the memory in anything like the same way.
Nicholas T. Proferes' screenplay breaks each meeting into vivid dramatic beats, starting with glimpses of each man's broken life or marriage, followed by Harry's awkward, inevitable, urgent question: Do you remember what happened that night?
The actors are beyond praise. Buscemi is more gaunt and hollow-eyed than ever, which is saying something. As an affluent, alcoholic realtor, John Savage plays a man deformed by a messy, uncontainable rage. Aidan Quinn is a professor whos channeled his guilt into an anti-military, anti-macho philosophy; this is the film's least credible idea, but Quinn gives it weight.
Finally and most frightening is Titus Welliver as a born-again whose wife is a paraplegic and who thanks the Lord in almost every sentence. The sight of him clutching a golf club and fighting to keep his true bile from rising is indelible.
Bette Gordon has radar for the uneasy posturing of the archetypal American male, especially when the subtext is homosexuality. But her vision isn't reductive. Harry is damned, but we still have glimpses of a larger spirit, of the passionate man he was.
The victim, once a concert pianist, finally makes an appearance, although not in the way we expect. He's played by Campbell Scott, and his restraint is far more haunting than rage and tears. Kagan is a passive revenger. He has waited. And Harry's sin, we learn, came from a different place than his buddies' blind, stupid prejudice.
Underneath the revenge story in Handsome Harry is a kind of ghost story. Those ghosts aren't just the victims of hate, disfigured by a violent, senseless world. The ghosts are also the victimizers - men like Harry who are pale shadows now, having murdered what was best in themselves.
DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.
And with apologies to the great Merle Haggard, we have a correction. In our review yesterday of Haggards new CD, I Am What I Am, we added a few years, 10 actually, to his age. What he is is 73 years old, and still walking the floor over you.
For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(Soundbite of song, Walking the Floor Over You)
Mr. MERLE HAGGARD (Singer-songwriter, musician) (Singing) You left me and you went away. You said that you you'd be back in just a day. That day has come and gone but youre still away from home. I'm walking the floor over you.
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