Eye For Film >> Movies >> Hell Is Other People (2010) Film Review
Hell Is Other People
Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson
With its title harking to Jean-Paul Satre, you could be forgiven for thinking that Jarrod Whaley's first feature would be the sort of deep philosophical wallow in the mire of relationships favoured by so many of the latest generation of American 'indie kids'. In fact, although it certainly touches on the issues of social malaise and how we find ourselves defined by others, Whaley's film has a much more European flavour in terms of its refreshingly dry and uneasy comedy, which pokes fun at self-absorption and analysis.
The central character of Morty (Richard Johnson, of whom we will surely see more) is a distant American cousin of Rising Damp's Rigsby, Fawlty Tower's Basil or The Office's David Brent - on the one hand, you can't help but feel uncomfortable laughing at him, because his sad-sack life generates sympathy, but on the other, there's a growing suspicion that he's not really a very nice person. Morty lives in Chatanooga and, despite what appear to be his best efforts, work is thin on the ground. "He's always doing his own thing," says his on/mostly off girlfriend Emmy (Mary Beth Sanders) "And no one really knows what that thing is."
Initially, it seems as though he's easily exploited, slaving away at a basement clearout for a kooky artist (Elizabeth Worthington) who seems more interested in photographing his tender bits than tendering payment. As the film progresses, however, it becomes clear that he is actually pretty adept at getting what he wants. Not only does he contrive to persuade a vague acquaintance that he should pay him for psychoanalysis - his instruction to "stop being passive" drenched in irony - but he also manages to duck out of paying for his own analysis by using his uncanny knack of making others feel uncomfortable.
Whaley cleverly puts the viewer in the position of Morty's acquaintances as we, just as they have before us, find he is less tolerable the longer we know him. Whaley imbues him with a passive aggressiveness that is so subtle, however, that you may well overlook many of his less salubrious character traits on a first viewing, making repeat watches satsifyingly rewarding.
Whaley already proved he has a keen documentarian's eye in his short film Passion Flower and he puts the same loose style to good use here. His camerawork is immersive and naturalistic, whether hugging close to Morty so we can share his isolation or voyeuristically observing his ungainly social interactions from afar. The opening scenes unfold without dialogue and could just as easily be documentary as feature, as we watch Morty take his first toke of the day and see Emmy - the most well-adjusted of the characters here - unwind through keyboard playing.
This is a taut film in which little is wasted, so that even this early piano theme will be used rather cleverly as the narrative progresses as a piece of linking score. Above all, Whaley's debut is very funny and while the narrative arc may be a little on the light side - something that will no doubt be improved in future films - these characters are all going somewhere through the course of the film and their emotions are alive with complexity.
Watch the trailer, below