Trust (1990)

Director: Hal Hartley


By Marilyn Ferdinand

I love looking into the underexplored areas of film, mining for gold beneath the dross of mainstream movies. My offroad viewing habits are what made me start this website—to serve other people like me. I’ve found a great deal to admire among the independent filmmakers of every era, from silent-era giant D. W. Griffith to today’s David Gordon Green. Hal Hartley is another modern indie director that many film fans have embraced, but he’s a harder animal for me to accept.

The first Hal Hartley film I saw was No Such Thing, a truly original film about an eons-old, fire-breathing monster trying either to survive modernity or die in peace. I was captivated by the unfortunate creature and the nod to miracles in an unbelieving age. I couldn’t wait to see it again. My second viewing ended about halfway through the film. Even though I hate the word with a passion, the only way to describe the film at closer inspection was “twee.”

When I got talked into watching Trust, I tried to reserve judgment. Unfortunately, the self-conscious, faux-naïve dialogue directed with a faux-ironic hand had me ready to revolt. In deference to the hubby, I stuck with it. I found myself being charmed once again by Hartley, but knowing full well that this film’s shadow would cast about as long as a toothpick.

The movie begins in an office in an abortion clinic where our heroine, pregnant teenager Maria Coughlin (Adrienne Shelly) is being asked the usual battery of questions by the faux-ironically named Nurse Paine. I was heartened to see that Paine was being played by one of my favorite, though highly underutilized actresses, Karen Sillas. Maybe this was going to be good. Alas, as soon as Maria communicates her disillusionment with the guy who knocked her up, I lost hope. After a promising opening of, “I realized what he saw when he looked at me,” she started cataloging her physical features, ending with the inevitable “cunt.” Perhaps it was used to have Maria denigrate herself with a word women can find terribly offensive, but it just didn’t ring true. Instead, I felt like I was deliberately being goosed. Maria, it seemed, was going to be just another type—to judge by her attire, a hooker in training. Or maybe it was just that Britney Spears thing going on, even though Britney was in her first year as a mouseketeer in 1990. Whatever.


Next we meet our hero, Matthew Slaughter (Martin Donovan), an unemployed computer technician who lives with his abusive father (John MacKay). We watch his father, wearing a lumberman’s jacket and cap, come home and punch Matthew a few times for leaving a cigarette on the side of the bathroom sink. Matthew walks around with a hand grenade in his pocket at all times.

Maria goes home to find that her argument with her father in the morning, during which she slapped him, resulted in his death from a heart attack. Her mother (Merritt Nelson), also abusive though always ready to invite her victim to sit down and have some tea or supper, throws her out of the house. Maria ends up on a bench in front of a convenience store commiserating with a lonely, mentally unstable woman whose baby died. A young woman comes by, leaves her baby, like a dog, in his carriage in front of the store and goes in. Maria goes in to buy some beer with $5 she cadged off the lonely woman. The store owner tries to rape her, she burns him in the eye with a cigarette, and exits, beer and all. The woman she had been talking to and the baby are gone.

Matthew and Maria hook up when he finds her in an abandoned building and brings her home. Dad isn’t home. When Maria gets up in the morning, she takes a shower, puts her clothes in the wash, and walks around in the kitchen in a towel, spilling things left and right. When Matthew’s father arrives, he becomes enraged by the mess and by Maria’s presence. He throws her wet clothes on the floor. When Matthew comes to her rescue, his father punches him again. Maria grabs a dress to wear out of a hall closet and takes Matthew home with her. She is allowed back in with the understanding that she will be her mother’s slave for the rest of their lives.

trust%20shelly.jpgThis film really is about growing up and getting out on one’s own. Maria and Matthew act as catalysts for each other’s independence. In Matthew’s case, Maria may provide the mothering he needs to take responsibility for himself. Maria, it seems, has grabbed one of Matthew’s mother’s dresses, though the woman died giving birth to him. It’s farfetched, though not impossible, that some of her clothes would still be around. It is affectation to have Maria wear nothing else for the rest of the movie.

Matthew encourages Maria to wear her glasses, which she thinks make her look like a librarian. He says he likes librarians. Then he asks her to marry him, and she accepts. Having someone fight to take her away from her mother seems to galvanize Maria’s resolve. In the end, she has the abortion she was planning and decides that marrying someone she’s known for less than a week isn’t for her.

What kept me with this movie and engaged me was Maria. Adrienne Shelly managed to communicate so much about the inner struggle and thoughts of her character. Even though we can see some set-ups a mile away, we tend to believe that Maria is really rather innocent of the world. If we had had a real character(ization) from her mother and sister (Edie Falco), we might have seen their overprotective hand toward Maria a little more clearly. Shelly is out on that high wire alone. Her underutilization in films and television over the past 17 years is symptomatic of the dearth of good roles for women, even for the young and pretty (see Joey Lauren Adams’ Come Early Morning), and led her down the same path Adams took—direction. Unfortunately, her tragic murder will prevent us from seeing her act or direct again.

Martin Donovan is an engaging actor who plays Matthew, a rebellious, immature man of uncompromising principles, with conviction. He and Shelly have chemistry, and we believe the depth of their alliance. Unfortunately, Hartley doesn’t seem to believe much about this movie and sabotages their characters’ real growth with a final scene that literally blows the good will Shelly and Donovan have created. Ultimately, Trust is a betrayal that communicates that honesty doesn’t pay. Hartley believes in his corrupt adults, not youth.

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