Seldom Scene
Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

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The Adjuster (1991)

I wanted to make a film about believable people doing believable things in unbelievable ways.”—Atom Egoyan

I usually take notes on films I review. I like to let characters speak for themselves, rather than simply analyze them. Good films (and even some bad ones) give actors great lines. The reason I’m mentioning this is that I didn’t get a chance to do my homework this month. But it’s not my fault. Honest. Let me explain.

A decade ago I rented one of Atom Egoyan’s early films, The Adjuster (1991), because I’d heard that he was one of Canadian cinema’s up-and-coming young directors. I watched The Adjuster. I hated it. At the time it struck me as one of those art house films that people make to show they can be clever, but forget to instill with any passion or soul. Years went by before I picked up another Egoyan film. The next one was Exotica, which also left me cold. Then came The Sweet Hereafter. I was blown away. Stunned. The Sweet Hereafter was an early choice for this column, and I described it as a high point of English Canadian cinema.

But I didn’t change my mind about the earlier films. I just figured Egoyan had grown into his craft, that he’d dropped the pretentiousness.

Fast forward in time to a couple of weeks ago. I started chewing my way through a movie lover’s banquet called The New York Times Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made, edited by Peter M Nichols. It’s in alphabetical order by film title, with the original reviews published in the Times when the films opened, and the fifth picture reviewed is…you guessed it…The Adjuster. As I read that review, I was thinking, “Damn, that sounds like a neat movie. Could it possibly be the same one I wrote off ten years ago?” No harm in taking a second look.

This is where the problem came in. I wasn’t really being open-minded—I just wanted to confirm my initial aversion. So, second time around, no notes. Why bother? Fast forward in time 102 minutes. Uh-oh. That actually was a pretty darn good film, wasn’t it? As a matter of fact, I really enjoyed it, didn’t I? Maybe, just maybe, I owe Mr. Egoyan an apology for all those years of making The Adjuster one of my bêtes noires?

A few days after my change of heart, I’m pumped enough about The Adjuster to want to write about it here. Too bad about all those notes I never took…

What made the difference? Several possibilities come to mind, but I think the biggest factor was having a clearer idea of the storyline the second time around. Janet Maslin’s Times review gave me that. Not having to decipher the narrative puzzle left me free to focus on the acting, the dynamics of the characters, the backgrounds, the individual camera shots, and the music (an eerie blend of western & oriental themes). Sometimes a review can wreck a film by revealing too much; The Adjuster is one of those cases where forewarned is fortuitous. So let me give some stuff away.

The movie is about a kind ghoul. His name is Noah Render, and his job is to come in after fires or other disasters have laid waste to people’s earthly belongings, and settle their insurance claims as surgically as possible. I’m deliberately mixing metaphors here. Surgeons and ghouls would seem to have limited compatibility. Bear with me.

Noah’s clients treat him like they would a doctor who holds their lives in his hands. As he often almost literally does. He’s got some of that unshakeable Olympian calm that patients look for in their doctors before they go under the knife. He comforts them. He is their rock. He alone knows the path through the intricacies of Insurance Law which will guide them to the Final Salvation of the Settled Claim. With the smoke of disaster still in the air, Noah appears at their side like a desolation angel and whispers: “You’re in shock—even if it doesn’t feel like it.” And his alone becomes the god-like task of, first, reconstructing shattered lives from traumatized memories & salvaged photos and, second, “sorting things out, deciding what has value and what doesn’t.” Again, every bit the surgeon, whose deft scalpel snicks away between life and death.

Too bad he’s still a ghoul. That word comes from Arabic folklore, describing a desert spirit that preys on corpses. Noah feeds on the corpses of his clients’ pasts. To do this, he must first ensure that those clients do not leave him. He must become a Collector. Every grieving soul is offered an all-expenses-paid stay in a motel of Noah’s choosing. It’s his own twisted Ark. They’re all there in one place: the old couple whose entire future Noah holds in a file folder; the young woman he seduces, whose claim he itemizes as they’re making love; the gay man who….Well, let’s save a few surprises….

Noah’s hunger doesn’t include his own wife, Hera (Arsinée Khanjian) and his child, and the refugee sister-in-law who lives with them. As he does his nightly motel rounds, they are left to fend for themselves in a lonely castle of a house squatting in the midst of acres of stripped land in a subdivision that was never built. It’s a pretty close suburban approximation of hell. Noah spends more time shooting random arrows out of his bedroom window than he does talking to his family.

The emotional lockdown is destroying Hera. She works as a censor for the Ontario Board of Classification, spending her days coding unspeakable acts in darkened screening rooms and warehouses filled with crates of pornographic flotsam. With a hidden video camera, she secretly records the things that cannot be shown; to be replayed later by her sister as some kind of catharsis for horrors in her past. A slimy co-worker (Don McKellar) and cast-iron boss (David Hemblen) ensure that a difficult situation becomes impossible.

As Hera and Noah, Khanjian and Koteas give us the perfect portrait of how emotional addictions, whatever form they may take, kill intimacy. Passion is still there; it’s just horribly displaced. Their two lives start running on parallel tracks full speed into oblivion.

As if the main story weren’t potent enough, there’s an intersecting one involving a wealthy couple, Bubba and Mimi (Maury Chaykin, Gabrielle Rose) who devise increasingly outlandish psychosexual role-playing games. We first meet them in a subway train, with Bubba as a slobbering derelict and Mimi as the Chanel-clad socialite who lets him grope her. Games can be a kind of therapy; they can also be desperate attempts to reconnect with souls that have been set adrift. Pretending to talk of some fictitious backers who he claims want to rent Noah and Hera’s house for a movie shoot, Bubba describes himself: “They have everything they want, or they have the means to have everything they want, but they don’t know what they need.” I’ve always admired Maury Chaykin as an actor, and The Adjuster gives him a role to die for.

Atom Egoyan warps and wefts the two stories of Noah & Hera and Bubba & Mimi with consummate skill. The film’s climax is an emotional holocaust. This time I got it. Better late than never. I’m not going to forget those final few minutes for a very long time. One thing worries me, though. If I was so wrong about this film being bad, could another viewing turn an old favorite into coal?

Looking Back & Second Thoughts

So many places you see, you wouldn’t think twice about, they pass right through you. And then, for no reason, you can see a house, and find yourself wondering, what is going on inside of those walls.” – Bubba

You’re in shock–even if it doesn’t feel like it.” – Noah, the adjuster

Given that Double Indemnity–one of the very best noirs, in both book & movie incarnations–has an insurance salesman as its protagonist, should anyone be surprised that one of Canada’s best film directors was able to get a lot of dramatic mileage out of the life of an insurance claims adjuster? Egoyan is the closest the Canadian film industry has come to having its own Ingmar Bergman–a multi-talented creator (writer, director, producer, actor) working consistently & independently with the same team of exceptional professionals (actors, cinematographers, art directors, production designers, editors, composers) over decades. Always the best of the best. The Adjuster has grown on me over the years. The first time I saw the film I’d never seen anything quite like before; I was both intrigued and annoyed. The annoyance is long gone. On my latest viewing, just prior to preparing this Seldom Scene entry for posting, the experience was the same as I I’ve felt rereading perfectly crafted short stories for the nth time. It doesn’t hurt that The Adjuster covers almost every major theme running through Canadian film & literature: loneliness, isolation, strange sex, black humor, identity crises, need, loss, survival, mind games, ennui, and psychosis. The only thing missing is harsh weather–preferably a winter storm. In a revealing interview included with The Adjuster DVD, Egoyan himself says that his film works because “it’s absurd and it’s extreme, yet it’s within the realm of reality. It has drawn itself to this weird state….” He describes how his films’ low budgets allow him to retain complete control over his work, which in turn allows him to take chances with his characters. They are complicated, complex, and draw the viewer into their lives. Again, this depth is reminiscent of the work of a gifted short story writer such as Alice Munro.

Here are some fragments of reviews of The Adjuster by Canadian film critics:

From Katherine Monk’s Weird Sex & Snowshoes and other Canadian film phenomena (2001):

Surreal, and yet strangely funny, The Adjuster is a tale of several maladjusted people just trying to find a little pleasure in a cold and hostile environment. CANADIAN CHECKLIST: Weird sex | Empty landscape | Language barriers | Voyeurism | Internal demons | Dysfunctional marriage | Missing items (in this case from fire) | Personal alienation | Humour is based in irony | Symbolic reference to “colonies” and “freezing” (at the wart doctor’s)

From George Melnyk’s One Hundred Years of Canadian Cinema (2004):

The Adjuster was described by Egoyan as a film ‘about believable [read ordinary] people doing believable things in an unbelievable [read abnormal] way.’ One scholar of his films has observed that his films do not contain the social reality ‘found in tourist brochures.’

Exposing familiar and individual dysfunction has become his trademark in a way that seems to parallel Cronenberg’s exploration of the dark recesses of the mind and technology. Egoyan’s juxtaposing of the bizarre with the ordinary cuts through the surface of human relations to some hidden darkness, as do Cronenberg’s films, except that in Egoyan’s films there are no specially effects and no twisted manifestations of the living. It is the very ordinariness of his characters that is frightening. Not taking anything for granted is suggested in the eeriness of the music, by the introspective faces of the actors, whose eyes (and dialogue) do not quite connect with the world, by the dark colours that bathe his scenes, and in the events whose rationality is constructed in such a way as to disturb the viewer. The actors in his films present their characters in a cold and distant manner that is unsettling to filmgoers accustomed to the emotional releases of melodrama. While Cronenberg let the excesses of the id spill out in a perverse and grotesque world of rampant parasites, exploding heads, and ghoulish medical instruments, Egoyan holds the instinctual inside firmly under artistic control, so that psychological perversion only emerges gradually.”

From William Beard’s essay on Exotica, in Jerry White’s anthology The Cinema of Canada (2006):

In the first part of the film [Exotica, but also The Adjuster] viewers are baffled by what connection many of the people and events have to each other, but connections begin to show themselves gradually, the inexorably, as the action proceeds. What seems arbitrary turns out to be determined and even overdetermined. And, in a parallel movement, the guesses we make about how things are connecting and why people are acting as they do form another unfolding process (like a striptease, as Egoyan himself has remarked in the film’s press kit), which, however, is full of misdirection and false clues, so that we find ourselves constantly having to revise our guesses, often drastically, in the light of new information, right to the last scene of the film. This is a scenario familiar from some of Egoyan’s earlier films, notably The Adjuster, carried here to climactic heights. At the end of the film the pieces have all locked together to paint a picture complex in itself and full of reverberations and further suggestions that leave the viewer still working on the puzzle.”

From Take One’s Essential Guide to Canadian Film (2001), edited by Wyndham Wise:

This amoral yet compassionate protagonist who lives with his film censor wife…in a barren, unfinished suburban development is one of Egoyan’s most strangely compelling creations. Egoyan’s effective use of wide screen portrays the terrifying abyss that separates Noah from everyone he encounters. The Adjuster–a haunting drama of disconnection and desire–is a searching re-interpretation of Luis Buñuel’s Nazarin, with distant echoes of Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice.”

Movie Information

Genre: Drama
Director: Atom Egoyan
Actors: Elias Koteas, Arsinée Khanjian, Maury Chaykin, Gabrielle Rose, Don McKellar, David Hemblen, Rose Sarkisyan, Jennifer Dale
Year: 1991
Country:
Original Review: December 2003

Cyberspace:

Hazards of Helen-“Leap from the Water Tower” (1915) Helen Holmes, J.P. Mcgowen, Leo Maloney

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3FqrG7FSFJU

Hazards of Helen Episode 13

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EHJRTgkZXJM

The Hazards of Helen-“The Pay Train” (1915)- Helen Holmes, Hoot Gibson, G.A. Williams

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xaLqZqF4wqw

There were a lot of plucky heroines in the early silent film days, particularly in the serials like The Perils of Pauline, The Hazards of Helen, and The Adventures of Kathryn. From Ephraim Katz’s entry on Helen Holmes in The Film Encyclopedia: “For several years she had a huge following, trailing only Pearl White and Ruth Roland for popularity as the screen’s ‘serial queen.’ Her serials typically had a railroad background, and her specialty was chasing villains along the top of a moving train and leaping from train to horse or horse to train with both in motion.” Larry Tells describe The Hazards of Helen in his A Brief History of the Silent Screen: “The longest serial, The Hazards of Helen, released on this date [November 14, 1914]. It had 119 episodes produced by Kalem Film Manufacturing Company. This serial ran until February 24, 1917. Each episode was a completely self-contained melodrama, all with a railroad setting. The leading roles of Helen were played by three different actresses, Helen Holmes (episodes 1-26), Elsie McLeod (episodes 27-49), and Helen Gibson (episodes 50-119). The scene of a heroine awaiting rescue while tied to the railroad tracks with a runaway train approaching was derived from this serial.”

Marvel Superhero and Indigenous Actress Holds Fast to Maya Roots

https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/08/world/americas/maria-mercedes-coroy-indigenous-roots.html?action=click&algo=identity&block=editors_picks_recirc&fellback=false&imp_id=391370558&impression_id=2d493030-d6d6-11ed-bb89-55c89bfedf2b&index=0&pgtype=Article&pool=editors-picks-ls&region=ccolumn&req_id=43292009&surface=home-featured&variant=0_identity

Julia Lieblich at The New York Times profiles Guatemalan actress Maria Mercedes Coroy, still firmly rooted in her home town of Santa Maria de Jesus, a Kaqchikel Maya town located at the base of a volcano. From the article:

The day after filming her final scene [in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever] in Los Angeles, Ms. Coroy, rather than hanging out in Hollywood, headed home to Santa María de Jesús, a Kaqchikel Maya town of about 22,000 at the base of a volcano in Guatemala. By nightfall, she was curled up in bed in her family’s bright pink cinder block house with vegetables growing in the backyard.

I felt like my bed was hugging me,” said Ms. Coroy, 28, one of nine siblings in a family of farmers and vendors.

The next morning she resumed her usual life. She and her mother put on their hand-woven huipiles, or blouses, and cortes, or skirts, to catch the 5:30 bus to the small city of Escuintla to sell produce in the bustling market, a job she started after fifth grade when she had to drop out of school to help her parents.

Some days she walks two hours with a mule to the family farm to cultivate cabbage and pumpkins. In her spare time, she weaves colorful huipiles with motifs of birds and flowers on a backstrap loom.

I like to be right alongside with my characters”: Charlotte Rampling on her career, acting “flow”

https://www.salon.com/2023/04/04/charlotte-rampling-juniper/

Gary M. Kramer interviews an actress who has always presented audiences with edgy characters that they’re not likely to forget. Charlotte Rampling’s acting career started in 1964 and she hasn’t slowed down since. She currently has 133 acting credits on Imdb. From the interview:

“I put a lot of myself into nearly all the characters I play. I never thought of being an actor. I felt into it in the early 1960s and I seem to have a talent for it. I am getting away with it, wasn’t I? I would choose characters that had the kind of spirit I did and take risks. I don’t take risks in real life, but in cinema I could! [Laughs] I never thought of myself as an actor in the sense of wanting to play different parts, like Shakespeare or have these wonderful texts. I thought, I’ll wait to see what happens, and see what comes up, and the things that came to me were enough to make it interesting for me.”

Film Censorship: Noteworthy Moments in History

https://www.aclu.org/files/multimedia/censorshiptimeline.html

From the aclu.org website, an annotated chronology of key moments in the censorship of motion pictures, from 1896 to 2006. An example from 1951:

Among the many scenes and exchanges that the censors objected to in the classic The African Queen were an “immoral relationship” between a missionary and a hard-edged boat captain during WWI, the “questionable taste” of the sound of stomach-growlings, and the film’s depiction of “ridiculed missionaries” which may be offensive “to people of serious religious conviction.” Also, kissing should not be “passionate, lustful, or open-mouthed.”

 

Films Worth Talking About:

Poison, Delicatessen, Naked Lunch, Hook, Paris is Burning, Prospero’s Books, The Silence of the Lambs, Korczak, The Grifters, Hamlet, L.A. Story, Merci la vie, The Company of Strangers, Barton Fink, Jacquot de Nantes, Thelma and Louise, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, King of New York, Toto the Hero, Boyz N the Hood, [Truly, Madly, Deeply], La Belle Noiseuse, Let Him Have It, Urga, My Own Private Idaho, J’entends plus la guitare, The Fisher King, Edward II, Van Gogh, Las Amants du Pont Neuf, IP5, Beauty and the Beast, Cape Fear, Yentl, JFK, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, The Doors, The Commitments, The Addams Family, In Bed with Madonna (Truth or Dare), Bugsy, For the Boys, Other People’s Money, Proof, City Slickers, Raise the Red Lantern, Homicide, Impromptu

The Bigger Picture

Films: any film by Atom Egoyan is worth watching, but some personal favorites are The Sweet Hereafter (1997, reviewed on this site), Chloe (2009), Felicia’s Journey (1999), Exotica (1994), and Calendar (1993).

Music: Mychael Danna: Music for Film

Books:

The Word on the Street

My problem is the story is weird for weird’s sake. Who’d want to know these people? They are creepy, and the film becomes creepy. [crossbow0106]

This film is set firmly in Egoyan country. We have dysfunction, we have recorded media, we have beautiful shots, a wonderful score, great dialogue, fantastic use of silence (watch out for that one) and overall- you can feel an almost religious intensity beaming through the celluloid. My memory of this film consists of much more than just a plot- it is the warmth, the colours that stick with you too. One more thing… Tarkovsky said that films best asset was its ability to sculpt in time. Egoyans measured rhythm is hard to resist (obviously not for some people).
It seems to me though, that the complaints here are not to do with the films form. Of course it is well made. They have problems with the script, or at least the order of things. Well, for me- the chaos and strange order of things in this film keeps it gripping- apart from the fact that you never know what is going to come next- isn’t this half chaotic order a better rendition of reality than most? The content is also ‘strange’ and not really in keeping with ‘popular taste’. So if you are easily offended, or more at home with Spielberg- then please feel free to stick to him. But this is brave, sumptious, disturbing, invigorating, and beautiful territory. I was pleased to visit it.
P.S. Elias Koteas’ performance is probably one of my top five favourite performances ever, up there with Takeshi Kitano in Bad Cop and Christopher Walken in King of New York. Stoic, tragic, he hardly puts a foot wrong. [scrive]

Atom Egoyan is an absolute genius, but I find it somewhat difficult to discuss his films as they are so complex. He seems to make the kinds of movies where you walk out of the theater after it’s over and all the parts are clear in your head, but you can’t quite piece them all together. But you can’t help but try. Sooner or later, everything falls into place, and sometimes it doesn’t. Either way, Egoyan makes you really think about a lot of issues. [Doc-134]

Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan redefines the black comic satire of his earlier films (‘Family Viewing’, ‘Speaking Parts’), but for all its dark wit and visual sophistication the effort doesn’t add up to anything more than a cast of unattractive characters in search of a plot. [mjneu59]

I bought the DVD (I was so taken with it) and then just watched it for the second time tonight. The Adjuster is possibly the most hypnotic and captivating of all of Egoyan’s films (if you can get past the over-the-top bizarre factor) simply because you literally need to get to the end of the film to really put it together. And while that was true of other films, particularly Exotica, The Adjuster is a bit more rewarding simply because the themes and undercurrents of the film are so subtle. As with all of this Armenian-Canadian filmmaker’s works, it draws its magic out slowly, until it literally has you mesmerized.

The real standout performance (and piece of character writing) is in the always great Maury Chaykin’s character. Now, I never got that he was an ex football player, and never really believed his name was Bubba, but I guess that’s plausible. I merely thought he was another obsessive, taken to the extreme by extreme wealth and boredom. He’s the true nightmare version of Koteas’ character. Just the mere device of Chaykin and his wife tooling around in their chauffeured Lincoln or whiling away time at their huge mansion, always in search of some illusory delusion of normalcy and happiness was enough to hook me into this. Chaykin’s absorption into this character is fascinating to watch. The crux of the movie’s themes are all over an outstanding monologue he delivers while posing as a location scout for a movie company. It’s all there and rendered indelibly by him. Fabulous actor….just fabulous. [bob_meg]

Mychael Danna’s score and Steven Munro’s sound design push THE ADJUSTER past the dream world threshold, unraveling it strand by strand to catch and spin in the viewer’s subconscious. This is one you wont shake easily. Egoyan magic. [sissypower]

Egoyan deserves credit for pioneering this style of dreary, detached storytelling, which like it or not is truly original. Of course, he is also responsible for the clones who have copied this style (Last Night, Century Hotel, The Five Senses) to less-than-desirable results and given Canada the reputation of precious alternof—s. No, really, we’re normal people who don’t all have cold sex. [riderpridethemovie]