Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble With the Truth, which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and other platforms. He has written about movies and television for Filmmaker Magazine, American Cinematographer, and Film Comment, and is the author of The Art and Craft of TV Directing: Conversations with Episodic Television Directors. He also serves as a film historian at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and has contributed audio commentaries to DVDs and Blu-rays for Indicator, Shout Factory, the BFI, and other home video labels. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.
One of my favorite things about going around the festival circuit with my own movie during the last few years was getting the chance to see new films by other directors I might not have otherwise discovered. At the 2012 Little Rock Film Festival, I was lucky enough to see Daniel Schechter’s second film, Supporting Characters, a smart and hilarious look at men struggling to balance work and relationships that was heavily influenced by Albert Brooks’ Modern Romance but went off in its own highly rewarding directions. With its razor-sharp dialogue, elegant but unobtrusive visual style, and complex yet easily accessible insights, Supporting Characters blew me away and had me eagerly awaiting whatever Schechter would do next — and a little fearful that he would disappoint me by failing to live up to the promise of his modest comic gem.
I needn’t have worried. Now Schechter is back with his follow-up, Life of Crime, and it not only delivers on the expectations set up by his previous film, it exceeds them. Based on Elmore Leonard’s novel The Switch, it tells the story of a kidnapping scam that goes awry when the victim’s husband decides that he doesn’t want his wife back. If this sounds familiar, like a retread of Ruthless People or The Ransom of Red Chief, that’s only because a mere description of the plot is a very inadequate way to sum up any Elmore Leonard story — or any Daniel Schechter film. Leonard, whose works also served as the basis for Out of Sight, Jackie Brown, Get Shorty, and the classic Westerns Hombre and The Tall T, is all about behavior — his plots are mere pretexts for getting at what really concerns him: the human condition in all its ridiculousness, poignancy and unfathomability.
Given this, Schechter is an ideal filmmaker to adapt Leonard’s work, since he shares the author’s wry but humane point of view and his interest in why people behave in the ways that they do, even when their actions go against their own interests. Life of Crime has more in common with a film like Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye than it does with other kidnapping and caper movies, in that it’s less about generating suspense and more about generating interest — interest in the characters and how they relate to each other, and how they see themselves, and how they change (or don’t change) their lives. The film not only takes place in the 1970s,it feels as though it could have been released then, alongside The Friends of Eddie Coyle and Hal Ashby’s movies and The King of Marvin Gardens; it’s got a kind of confident, unforced charm and a relaxed pace that sucks you in.
It’s that form of relaxed confidence that I really respond to in Schechter’s work. Right from the opening shots of Life of Crime, you can tell you’re in good hands — the director’s choices in terms of camera movement, lighting and color are all precise and evocative, and he has a firm grip on the pace and modulation of the performances. Yet it’s also a completely unobtrusive style that doesn’t announce itself. Schechter is secure enough to serve Leonard’s material and the actors without jazzing up the visuals or resorting to quick cuts to artificially heighten the energy, and he’s secure enough to refrain from all the easy laughs and effects most filmmakers can’t resist when making period pieces. The clothes and music choices are expressive of character and theme, not gimmicks or short cuts to cheap nostalgia; Schechter comes by his laughs and his emotional moments honestly and subtly.
He also knows something that a lot of other contemporary filmmakers have forgotten: that sometimes you can see deeper into a character by pulling your camera back and viewing them in context. Although Life of Crime, with an exemplary cast that includes Tim Robbins, John Hawkes, Will Forte and Jennifer Aniston, is first and foremost an actors’ film, Schechter is surprisingly judicious in his use of close-ups. He lets the characters breathe in generous frames that define them by their interaction with each other, an approach that yields far greater insights and revelations than the more boring (and, unfortunately, more frequent) method of ramming the camera in everyone’s faces for alternating close-ups. Once the plot gets set in motion, Life of Crime essentially becomes a series of two- and three-character scenes in which all perspectives are honored but none is privileged, and the space, both literal and metaphorical, that Schechter gives his characters allows the actors to do some extraordinary work.
Aniston in particular has never been better — in fact, I fear she’s so good that people will overlook her achievement because you can’t see her “acting.” Her final scenes with Will Forte and Tim Robbins are incredible, consisting of multiple revelations in which the full force of how she sees the men in her life, how they see her, and how she in turn sees herself hit her all at once. Yet Aniston doesn’t play these moments with the kind of overt emphasis one expects — like her director, she has the confidence to achieve more by doing less, and she finds a way to do the very thing all the screenwriting textbooks (wrongly) say you can’t do on screen: show what someone is thinking. Yet she does this without any conventionally “big” moments, and the same goes for the other actors. Schechter and Leonard have zero interest in phony climaxes or plot contrivances, and the upshot is that Life of Crime generates drama via a steady accumulation of small details and moments that are far more relatable and universal than what one finds in larger-scale genre pieces.
I think that adapting Elmore Leonard’s novel as a follow-up to Supporting Characters was a brilliant choice on Schechter’s part, allowing him to develop and deepen his style by bringing another voice into it. Whereas another straight relationship dramedy might have made it seem like the director was spinning his wheels a little, or falling back on established devices, taking on The Switch has put Schechter in the company of the other great directors who have used Leonard’s work as a vehicle for their own preoccupations: Martin Ritt, Budd Boetticher, Quentin Tarantino, and Steven Soderbergh, among others. Each of these filmmakers has managed to translate Leonard’s sensibility to the screen without sublimating their own points of view; as Soderbergh once pointed out, you can actually learn what a director does by watching several Elmore Leonard adaptations back to back and studying the different shadings. Life of Crime confirms that what Schechter does is respect both his characters and his audience enough to eschew the obvious and to avoid the hollow satisfactions of formula filmmaking in favor of something more profound and more rewarding. I can’t wait to see what he does next.