Wes Bentley rarely takes on leading roles, probably partially because his youthful, nondescript features lead audiences to identify with him most as a background player. Things People Do, a quiet drama directed by The Thin Red Line editor Saar Klein, finds Bentley taking on the main role of insurance adjuster Bill Scanlon, who turns to a life of crime when always playing the nice guy leaves him jobless and heavily in debt. Unfortunately, the film’s plodding, ham-fisted narrative allows neither Bentley nor Things People Do as a whole any opportunity to leave even the slightest impression.
Klein and co-writer Joe Conway clearly wanted their film to be received as a morality play, with seemingly every line of dialogue holding deeper meaning. In moderation, symbolic dialogue can be one of a screenwriter’s most potent weapons, but here it’s more exhausting than enlightening. One of the reasons Things People Do never held my attention is that it never really demanded that I pay it any; a little subtlety goes a long way in drama, but there’s absolutely none to be found in Things People Do. Even the faux-ambiguous ending is preemptively deflated. Only the least perceptive of viewers will appreciate Klein and Conway spelling everything out for them.
As Bill carries out several small-scale robberies and begins to enjoy himself, Things People Do should communicate the character’s heightened sense of invincibility, but the best that the film can manage is to ape the first few episodes of Breaking Bad. Bill puts on a wider smile, throws himself whole-heartedly into his new criminal endeavors and even impresses his wife in the sack. However, unlike that show, Things People Do feels dramatically inert. There’s not much tightening of the net, and Bill’s obstacles throughout the film are never as compelling as Klein and Conway seem to think they are.
The plot crawls by at a snail’s pace, favoring eye-catching photography over character development, and it also never generates much sympathy for its protagonist. As the credits rolled after the film’s overlong 110-minute runtime, I didn’t feel much of anything: no sadness, no satisfaction, hardly even any interest in what I’d just watched. If that’s not the mark of a movie that hasn’t done its job well, I don’t know what is.
Bentley is well-cast in an Everyman role, and his straight-laced appearance and screen presence sells Bill nicely as a moral, kind-hearted guy struggling to remain true to his sense of right and wrong in tough times. It’s when the actor is asked to portray Bill’s descent into moral turpitude, with little assistance from the script, that he falters. Movies about saints becoming sinners only really work if they fully flesh out the character’s shifting moral compass, but Things People Do deals in broad strokes, never showing the in-between steps on Bill’s journey from goody two-shoes to aggravated criminal. There’s no nuance in the script, and Bentley isn’t able to locate any on his own.
Jason Isaacs is more effective as a dog-tired, alcoholic cop named Frank, who strikes up a friendship with Bill. It’s a very normal role for the actor when compared to his recent over-the-top villains in Sweetwater and A Single Shot, but Isaacs still wrings every last drop of dramatic pathos out of the part. Disillusioned with the pursuit of justice after becoming estranged from his wife and son, Frank makes for an interesting counterpoint to Bill, a happily married man who veers away from the straight and narrow. Oddly, Isaacs doesn’t get as large a role as one might expect, and the film noticeably sags whenever he’s off screen.
Vinessa Shaw does solid work in the underwritten role of Bill’s concerned wife, Susan. The actress’s emotive features do a lot to communicate Susan’s suspicion, misery, anger and confusion, and she’s the character for whom I felt the most strongly sympathetic. Despite her lack of screen time, Susan’s interactions with Bill are enjoyably organic, and one pivotal scene she has late in the film is disconcertingly plausible. Finally, Haley Bennet hits a truthful note as a convenience store cashier struggling to stay above the moral decay of the day. It’s a slight part that she plays to perfection.
For all it may lack in terms of narrative, Things People Do is gorgeously shot. The film’s evocative photography fully captures the desolation and loneliness of the wide-open desert and steadily decaying society around it. Given that Klein edited The Thin Red Line, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Things People Do owes an absolutely massive debt to Terrence Malick. Klein’s editing is as ethereal and gently poetic as stretches of The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, and the film’s philosophical quandaries also feel distinctly Malickian. Things People Do never touches that same plane of transcendent bliss as Malick’s own films, but Klein’s work behind the camera is still highly impressive in how close it comes.
With a less heavy-handed story, Things People Do could have made for an interesting watch. As it stands, however, striking visuals are the only real reason to seek out this drama. Despite Bentley’s efforts and a fine performance from Jason Isaacs, it’s never as compelling or thought-provoking as it wants to be.