I think it is nearly impossible to engage in any serious discussion of this film without describing the “twist” in the middle of the film. Accordingly, the spoiler adverse should be warned that the midpoint shall be outed. Clayne Crawford (Rectify) plays a man – the titular Joseph Chambers – who, obsessed with the general decay of society, decides he absolutely must practice his deer hunting skills, electing to head out on a solo hunt for the first time. When he’s out in the wilderness and tracking an animal, a sudden sound draws his attention and he fires his rifle into the wilderness. That bullet hits not a deer, but a homeless man living in the woods and thus sets off a fascinating character study-cum-morality drama as Chambers attempts to figure out how to handle the situation.
The film is methodically and elegantly directed by Robert Machoian whose previous team-up with Crawford, The Killing of Two Lovers, deals with a similar thematic framework of a man grappling with the fragility of his masculinity. Crawford really excels at these types of roles. It’s clear he’s found real engagement in dissecting the definition of “manliness” in the 21st Century. His Teddy on Rectify, despite an outwardly successful career, grapples with the tension of a faltering marriage exacerbated by the return of his step-brother, an accused murderer on release. Similarly The Killing of Two Lovers deals with a man unable to come to grips with his wife moving on to another man during their separation. Here, Crawford inhabits a man who, despite a beautiful wife and growing family, seems utterly panicked by the idea that he’s unable to “provide” for his family in the conventional hunter/gatherer sense.
Crawford makes for a fascinating, internal performer. He never mugs or oversells and always leaves a bit of mystery to his character’s views. I’ve never actually seen Crawford’s take on the Mel Gibson role in the Lethal Weapon TV show, but it’s easy to see why someone would cast him that way. He has a conventional masculine appeal, but it’s his investment in subverting that type that makes him so interesting to me as a performer. It’s not easy in 2022 to dissect masculinity in a performance in a subtle way, but Crawford is out here finding different angles in each performance.
Joseph Chambers is a bit of a goof. He spends much of his big hunting adventure daydreaming about the 1991 World Series, complete with imagined audio clips, or singing to himself. Even through tragedy, he remains the sort to have Walter Mitty-esque flights of imagined fantasy. So when he shoots a man, the emotional turmoil really rips him apart. When Chambers first collapses with the realization that he has shot a man, the actor collapses on the ground in panicked sobs. Machoian’s camera keeps a cold observational distance, neither empathetic nor judgmental. It’s a nifty visual attempt to continue conveying a complete picture of a man compelled to chase something he really isn’t cut out for. It is in the moments after the shooting where the film spring vibrantly to live as Chambers struggles with both the reality and the practical consequences of what he’s done. His integrity becomes the film’s central interest – how will this flawed man handle a tragedy of this magnitude?
A significant element of the film’s success comes from Crawford’s occasional scene partners. Seven Fast movies, love them as I do, and some slasher horror has not really given Jordana Brewster (The Fast and the Furious) much of an opportunity to show off what she can do as a performer. I was happily surprised to find such delicate, effective work from her. In just a few minutes of screen time she has to do a lot of heavy lifting at conveying the sort of man her husband, Joseph Chambers, is to the audience. It’s not just that he passes on sex to pursue his solo hunt, it’s that he seems to have a healthy, successful marriage and even that isn’t coming close to filling the void he has. She has the sort of loving frustration with her husband that I oft see on my own wife’s face. Jeffrey Dean Morgan (The Walking Dead) appears briefly in the film’s last act and he too manages to convey a hell of a lot about how the community perceives Joseph Chambers and the sort of man he is assumed to be. Morgan tamps down his movie star charisma and I think hits just the right note for the film’s closing minutes.
The Integrity of Joseph Chambers isn’t perfect. The first act is a bit languid and the inevitability of tragedy is played in such a heavy-handed manner – it feels like a half dozen times Joseph is told that he should just wait a week to go hunting with a friend in just the film’s first ten minutes – that there’s less a sense of dread, and more a feeling of waiting for the inevitable. Nevertheless, this is another very strong effort for Robert Machoian and a wonderful showpiece for Clayne Crawford’s subversive talent.
The Integrity of Joseph Chambers premiered at Tribeca Film Festival 2022 on June 9, 2022.