He Was a Quiet Man (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Here's a film that evokes, at different times and in different ways, Joe Versus the Volcano, Brazil, and Taxi Driver. It's an effective and affecting movie about the crushing power of office servitude and the soul-sapping impact of office politics. The film is not an accurate representation in the strictest sense of what it's like to work in an office environment, but it captures the feeling of the experience even if some of the details are exaggerated. One could argue that He Was a Quiet Man is a cautionary tale, but it's more of an autopsy than a warning and eventually evolves into a character study and an offbeat romance before coming full circle via a clever and reasonable twist.

He Was a Quiet Man played a lot of film festivals in early 2007 but never gained enough traction to attract a major distributor. Eventually, Starz Entertainment bought the rights and gave it a short, limited theatrical run in November 2007 to avoid the "straight to DVD" tag. For the most part, the movie flew under the radar, collecting only 14 external reviews at IMDB. (A major Hollywood release will frequently garner more than 200.) While He Was a Quiet Man is not brilliant, it's better than about two-thirds of what makes it to multiplexes and is deserving of a little more attention, especially for those who spend up to half their waking hours in a depressing place similar to the one depicted here.

Bob Maconel (Christian Slater) is the guy anyone hardly knows. He's always there, in his cubical, but he never says a word and eats lunch by himself. He's perfect fodder to be picked on by the office bully (Scott Harper) and he harbors a crush on Vanessa (Elisha Cuthbert), the office bombshell whose "smile lights up a room." She doesn't know his name but recognizes the ceramic hula girl he keeps at his desk - the only ornamentation there. Life has been cruel to Bob and he's trying to work up the courage to go postal. One-by-one, the movie shows us the cretins around the office and we're tempted to agree with Bob that they deserve to die - except Vanessa. However, as Bob loads his gun in preparation for a massacre, he drops the last bullet on the floor. As he's on his hands and knees looking for it, the shooting starts without him. Someone has beaten him to the punch. The floor is littered with victims and the shooter (David Wells) carries on a conversation with Bob, who has emerged from hiding. He claims he didn't kill Bob because "you're the only one around here more pathetic than me." Bob takes this personally and empties all five of his bullets into the killer. Suddenly, the man who almost went postal is elevated to hero status.

But all is not well. One of the victims is Vanessa. She's not dead but she is paralyzed below the neck. When Bob tentatively visits her in the hospital, she spits in his face, deriding him for rescuing her and not letting her die. She later apologizes but insists that Bob help her complete the job that the shooter started. At the office, Bob is a star. The big boss, Gene Shelby (William H. Macy) gives him a new title - "V.P. of Creative Thinking" - and a window office on the executive floor. The office bully wants to be his new best friend and Paula (Sascha Knopf), a secretary who wouldn't give him the time of day, now wants to get to know him better. But underneath it all, Bob still simmers and seethes.

Aspects of the film fall into the "black comedy" category, especially those that take place in the office. Admittedly, it's hard to think of a darker irony than Bob, paralyzed by Hamlet-like indecision, having his "task" usurped by another cubicle-dweller. However, while there is gallows humor to be found in He Was a Quiet Man, the film works best as a study of a borderline personality. What happens to an individual who is pulled back from the brink as a result of circumstances rather than his own will? Can he begin interacting normally with his fellows or is he yet again a ticking time bomb?

In the name of variety, the movie incorporates an atypical but nonetheless touching romance between Vanessa and Bob. In happier times, she would never have looked twice at him. Now, however, he's her only helpmate and she's the light of his life. But she won't say she loves him and he is jealous of her past sexual liaison with Shelby. Vanessa wants Bob to kill her - she can't stand the thought of living her life as a quadriplegic, and she has no other friends or relatives who can aid in accomplishing the goal. But can Bob do it, even when Vanessa's plan requires minimal action on his part?

Christian Slater is cast against type - an actor normally associated with brash, arrogant characters portraying an introvert. He's also playing older. Slater is 38 but Bob is at least ten years beyond that and his poor physical condition and balding head make him look even older. Temperament-wise, Bob could be Slater's Mark Hunter (from 1990's Pump up the Volume) grown old and bitter. Elisha Cuthbert provides some nice eye candy but she's not the best performer in cinematic history to essay the part of a quadriplegic. And she still looks damn good after all those days lying in a hospital bed. William H. Macy is reliable as always but he doesn't have a lot to do except smile and sound supportive.

There's a little of Travis Bickel in Bob. Both are anti-social loners failed by society who are incapable of interacting normally with others. He Was a Quiet Man touches on themes forming the cornerstone of Brazil, about how the individual has become irrelevant in a corporate world where process trumps humanity. Finally, there's the connection to Joe Versus the Volcano. Like Brazil, Joe is about the soullessness of the company, and that's very much on display here. And the presence of a hula girl cements the association.

The writer/director is Frank Cappello, whose short resume includes the screenplay for Constantine and the direction and scripting of a 1995 Russell Crowe movie called No Way Back. This is Cappello's first outing behind the camera in a dozen years, and it's a successful one. The deftness with which he mixes satire, black comedy, drama, and romance makes the film's 95 minute running time pass quickly and the logical manner in which he chooses to end the story makes sense in retrospect. He Was a Quiet Man refers to the line often uttered by neighbors upon learning that the guy next door was a killer, and the title captures both the tone and topic of this motion picture.

He Was a Quiet Man (United States, 2007)

Director: Frank Capello
Cast: Christian Slater, Elisha Cuthbert, William H. Macy, Sascha Knopf, Jamison Jones
Screenplay: Frank Capello
Cinematography: Brandon Trost
Music: Jeff Beal
U.S. Distributor: Starz Entertainment
Run Time: 1:36
U.S. Release Date: 2007-11-23
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1