Every dozen years or so, like clockwork, the gifted Bette Gordon turns out another feature film. Her first, the landmark “Variety” (1983), upended feminist presumptions about women and pornography; “Luminous Motion” (1998) carved out its own peculiar niche in the venerable tradition of road movies and mother-son parables. Her latest, “Handsome Harry,” is a do-it-yourself redemption tale.
To say that “Harry” is more accessible, casually engaging and even charming than Gordon’s previous work (she has also directed for TV and teaches film at Columbia University) suggests that “Harry” is easy. It’s not. It might contain less of what is generally thought of as aberrant behavior and fewer dubious characters. But it is, in fact, a movie that makes us think, something more than a few Americans seem loath to do whether they’re in a theater or not.
It is not a casual movie either, one that’s content to tell a story that might just as well be told on stage or page. Gordon, who began making experimental films back in the 1980s, is a visual artist who uses each frame of “Harry” to reinforce the emotions and psychology of her characters, the metaphysical aspects of her story (written by Nicholas Proferes) and to help demolish the kind of pre-existing notions that got Harry into trouble in the first place.
Played by the charismatic Jamey Sheridan (most familiar from TVs “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” or “Trauma”), Harry Sweeney is a charmer. He’s always been a charmer. He doesn’t try, he just charms, being, as the old cliché goes, the kind of man whom women want to be with and men want to be. Naturally, his life is a train wreck. He’s divorced and has a son who doesn’t like him. Harry’s the picture of the unsatisfied man with less time ahead of him than behind him and who is ripe for a mission. He gets one, when an old Navy buddy named Kelly (Steve Buscemi) phones from his deathbed to ask Harry one last favor: Find Kagan, he begs, and tell him I’m sorry.
Find who? For what? For the gay-bashing they gave a sailor named Kagan during the Vietnam War, when they shipped together and homophobia had a better rep. (Proferes’ original script actually involved Korea vets, which might have made a more distinct point about eras and attitudes.) During the onboard beating, which we see in flashback, someone--Harry’s not sure it wasn’t him--dropped a piece of machinery on Kagan’s hand.
The abject cruelty of that act (Kagan was a pianist) isn’t something Harry can reconcile with his self-image, but he isn’t blessed with 20-20 insight either: Harry and Kagan (Campbell Scott, in a brief but brilliant turn) were in love, it turns out, and as Harry undertakes his Odyssean journey to find his old shipmates, and piece together what happened, what Harry is really searching for is himself, and absolution.
The idea of change is essential to “Handsome Harry,” and to the redemption Harry’s seeking. But change manifests in various ways among his former Navy brethren. Kelly, whom Buscemi imbues with a death-head’s horror, was the hardest case when the friends were at sea, but his impending demise has, as it tends to do, softened him.
Others have aged differently: Porter (Aidan Quinn), who greets Harry’s intrusion into his Northeastern college classroom with a punch to Harry’s jaw, has almost entirely left his past behind, but not to any great advantage: He’s churning with regret and unresolved issues. Gebhardt (Titus Welliver) has done well for himself and found religion, but it doesn’t make him any nicer or receptive to Harry’s pleas and questions. Rheems (John Savage) is a prosperous mess, whose wife (the wonderful Broadway actress Mariann Mayberry) propositions Harry at her first possible opportunity. Harry is, in fact, the catalyst for the Rheems’ marital meltdown, and an indication that his old buddies are hanging on by their respective threads.
Remarkably, because it doesn’t often happen, all the performances in “Handsome Harry” are good, notably Karen Young who plays the waitress, Muriel, who flutters around Harry like he was a flame and she had wings.
While the concept of faith is never addressed by any character in “Handsome Harry,” the entire film is built on it. Realistically speaking, Harry has little chance of finding men he lost track of 30 years previous, or to expect their memories to be reliable, or to think they’ll be forthcoming when and if he finds them. Besides, why should he think there’s any cosmic forgiveness awaiting him at the end of his journey, and why does it matter?
These are matters that don’t require explication, because they are at the root of our conception of existence: Harry proceeds because everything he’s ever known tells him he should and must, and while Bette Gordon may be a filmmaker of daring and a painterly hand, the eternal truths of “Handsome Harry” are finally what hold us.