Thursday, July 30, 2015

Neglected Gem #80: Six Ways to Sunday (1997)

Norman Reedus in Six Ways to Sunday (1997).

Norman Reedus’ face hadn’t yet turned into a slit-eyed tribal death mask when he starred in Six Ways to Sunday (1997), a low-budget black comedy that barely made it into a few theaters when it was new and hasn’t established the cult that would give it an afterlife, but that still has a spark and a bent but potent vein of mordant wit. (I first saw it on a DVD that I was able to pick up for six bucks; the now out-of-print DVDs available at Amazon go for more than that now, but in recent months, the movie has also turned up at YouTube. Reedus, best known for his hard-to-resist star turn as the principled white trash zombie killer Darryl on TV’s The Walking Dead, was in his late twenties when he played Sunday’s main character, Harry, an 18-year-old virgin who lives with his mother (Debbie Harry) in a particularly uninviting apartment in a particularly bleak, wintry part of Youngstown, Ohio. Here, he has the sly, baby-fox look of the young Christopher Jones in Wild in the Streets and Three in the Attic. But though Harry is far from defenseless, he’s ill-equipped to outfox anyone, except unwittingly. He’s even invented an imaginary friend, a smiling, finger-popping daddy named Madden (Holter Graham), to protect himself from admitting that he knows more—about things like sex, and violent anger—than he wants to.

Reedus’ Walking Dead character had to face the fact that he’s a better person than the racist older brother in whose shadow he’d spent most of his life. The monolith blocking the cold, pale Harry from the embracing warmth of the sun is his mother, an ex-prostitute whose husband left her for a man, and who keeps her grown son in a crippling protective bubble of ignorance about adult life while casually taunting him with her middle-aged body. When not bathing Harry, she lies down next to him on his bed and lets her robe fall away from her shoulders while feeding him such useful tidbits as, “You know, girls today have diseases between their legs.” It’s no wonder that the tightly wrapped Harry is sitting on a volcano of suppressed rage; the wonder is Reedus’ amazing performance, which is convincingly both sweet and dangerous, without the two sides ever quite overlapping. Reedus performs with such concentration that even when Harry is perfectly still and almost expressionless, he seems to be vibrating inside like a tuning fork. The performance is a calm lake surface with the reflection of something dark and roiling faintly visible.

It’s clear that Harry knows he needs to find some release, because he begs his buddy Arnie (Adrien Brody), a pitifully useless would-be thumb breaker and petty thief, to let him come along with Arnie is assigned the job of going to a strip club to threaten a welcher. In the heat of the moment, Harry goes crazy and beats the welcher to a pulp, though he can barely remember having done it. But the welcher is so scared after his run-in with this lunatic that he pays up, which gets Harry in solid with the boss of the local Jewish mafia, played by the master of agita, Jerry Adler. The boss takes Harry on as junior enforcer and also introduces him to his maid, Iris, played by Elina Lowensohn, the sweetly odd, oddly alluring Romanian-accented ingĂ©nue of such ‘90s indies as Hal Hartley’s Simple Men and Amateur and Michael Almereyda’s Nadja. Harry falls for her at first sight but doesn’t know how to express his feelings except by scowling at her; luckily, when the sexual tension becomes too much to bear, Madden materializes to take things to the next level. Iris has a gimpy leg, and after they become a couple, he tells Iris that he was drawn to her because of “your affliction.” Iris, whose level of comprehension of what she’s getting into is not always 100% clear, confuses the hell out of Harry by telling him, hey, same here.

Debbie Harry in Six Ways to Sunday (1997).
Debbie Harry has appeared in other movies, but none of them has done as smart a job of deploying her iconic status, while accommodating for the fact that the same qualities that have made her such an iconic singer and pop image translate into a fairly opaque acting style. Around the same time that she made Six Ways to Sunday, Harry appeared in James Mangold’s Heavy, playing an unhappy, angry waitress who had given up on life and resented anyone else who hadn’t done the same. Mangold seemed to want to use the contrast between the older Harry in a waitress uniform and the collective memory of the vibrant, teasing young pop star, though the effort fell flat and seemed exploitative, because as an actress Harry wasn’t in enough control of her image and what was being done with it. Here, the director, Adam Bernstein, doesn’t try to expose her as shabby and spent but puts her on a pedestal, as the sexualized, denying mother of the ultimate Freudian nightmare. And when he tries to suggest the glamorous, romantic peak from which this dragon has fallen by putting a snippet of the Blondie song “Sunday Girl” on the soundtrack, the gamble pays off handsomely.

The script for Six Ways to Sunday was adapted by Bernstein and his co-writer Mark Gerald from Charles Perry’s 1962 novel Portrait of a Young Man Drowning. The book is set in the 1930s, and Bernstein uses the burned-out atmosphere of the post-industrial setting for such a quiet tone that you might take the movie for a period piece set in an earlier time if it weren’t for Adam Brody’s character, who affects hip-hop mannerisms and speech and wears his hair in braids. A young director who wanted to make a splash with this material and who didn’t understand the nuances of nihilist humor would have pumped up the absurdist incidents and gloated over the extreme, gory violence and transgressive sex acts, but Bernstein’s straight-faced approach keeps the material both deeply funny and genuinely shocking. This was the second movie he directed, and though he’s kept busy since then working on such TV series as Breaking Bad, 30 Rock, Fargo, and Better Call Saul, he hasn’t directed another one since. That’s probably because, in a world in which Michael Cimino can piss away more than $40 million horses, kill a few horses, and deep-six a major studio in the process, and go on to leverage his reputation as a serious if difficult artist into four more times at bat on expensive, big-time productions, Bernstein the film director is best known as the director of It’s Pat. He will never get out of movie jail.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. ClubHitFlixNerveHiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.

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