In “The Integrity of Joseph Chambers”, Clayne Crawford plays a middle-class insurance salesman who wakes up, shaves his mustache into something from the Chuck Norris/Burt Reynolds catalog of masculinity, kisses his wife Tess (Jordana Brewster) goodbye and leave for an early morning hunting expedition. Say what you will about the Second Amendment, but Joseph Chambers doesn’t have to bear arms, and this trip seems like a recipe for trouble.
Writer-director Robert Machoian’s sequel to “The Killing of Two Lovers” plays out like a stripped-down, one-man “Deliverance”: no group of buddies on a weekend canoe trip. No dueling banjos. No sexual humiliation inflicted by a hillbilly. Just a guy with a gun in the woods, determined to prove something to the world about his ability for self-reliance – an ability that’s highly questioned with almost every decision he makes. Look at the way Joseph holds a gun, aiming it casually at the face of the friend who lends it to him. No wonder Tess won’t let him keep a gun at home.
A prolific short filmmaker and set photographer, Machoian specializes in ground-level alternate drama about everyday people. Imagine little Kelly Reichardt portraits of imperfect people. With “Integrity,” the director rejects all the tough movie tropes his protagonist pits himself against, producing a sly study in the perceived helplessness of a husband/father who lacks the basic survival skills that society expects of a man.
As the protector and provider of his family, does he want to appear strong? Or is his goal to feel less afraid of an abstract modern threat? As Crawford embodies, Joseph’s stubborn determination echoes Richard Dreyfuss in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” or Michael Shannon in “Take Shelter,” without the supernatural dimension of those films. Joseph’s obliviousness is underscored by Tess’ timid offer for sex, which he is too distracted to accept – so determined to demonstrate his manhood that he passes up the easiest way to do it.
Instead, he hugs his two sons and walks out, borrowing a manly four-door pickup and a gun from his buddy. He can barely maneuver the truck. There’s a thin line between comedy and tragedy at play here, and Machoian could easily have let the scene go longer, watching as Joseph makes a 17-point turn to get the butch vehicle out of the driveway. Instead, Machoian prefers slow, quiet scenes, leaning into the tension where Joseph’s hubris will take him.
Cinematographer Oscar Ignacio Jiménez frames things from a distance, the unusual square format suggesting a domestic family slideshow more than the adventure film at the center of which Joseph imagines himself. When this ill-prepared fool arrives in the woods, he doesn’t know how to handle a gun safely, but swells with pride carrying it. Composer William Ryan Fritch’s score puts us on edge, mingling with sound designer Peter Albrechtsen’s ambient sounds of wind and wildlife to unnerving effect. When Joseph climbs the ladder to the tree and sits down, applause erupts. A hero.
Hunting means waiting, but Joseph does not know this. He’s bored, but that doesn’t mean we are – at least not if we’ve managed to get on the film’s wavelength (which, admittedly, is asking a lot of most viewers). After dozing for a while in the tree, Joseph finally sees a deer on the other side of the clearing. And then something happens that will further test his instincts, sending him into a spiral of lousy choices, each revealing just how far he really is from the wilderness man he wants to be.
Ready for it? (Spoilers ahead. Skip to the last paragraph if you haven’t seen the movie.) Joseph hears a noise behind him, he turns around and unloads the gun. The ironically titled “Integrity” takes place partly in Joseph’s head, but also very far from it, studying him like a child the insects crawling around his anthill. It takes Joseph a long time to walk to where the ball hit. There, he discovers a man (Michael Raymond-James) lying motionless, with a chest wound.
Is he dead? Joseph does not think to check. He’s so shaken by the situation that he starts talking to himself, trying to get his guilt out of the way in every possible way – such chatter isn’t entirely convincing, but gives some insight into what he’s thinking. Joseph stumbles towards the truck, where he curls up in a fetal position and cries of bad luck. What happens next also feels informed by a hundred films he may have watched: the kind where a decent man’s life is turned upside down by a mistake, or where desperate killers cut the corpse into pieces to hide the evidence (it doesn’t go that far).
The absurdity would be hilarious if it weren’t so horrible. Your mileage may vary. Gun control advocates have a lot to grasp here, though it’s a more simplistic way to read the film, which, like “The Killing of Two Lovers” before it, focuses on a certain inability on the part of contemporary men to channel their frustration. . Joseph not only has the basic training for a day in the woods, but also the emotional maturity to recognize those shortcomings. Still, it’s not like Tess is urging him to prove himself. Like getting your foot blasted with a shotgun, this situation is entirely self-inflicted. Machoian could have made “Integrity” more engaging, incorporating the same ideas into a more widely accessible film, but somehow its minimalist, patience-testing style forces us to engage with Joseph’s choices. That feeling of exasperation you feel might just be the point. We can’t all be Rambo.