The writer-director Robert Machoian's follow-up to 2020's knockout The Killing of Two Lovers, The Integrity of Joseph Chambers, is another study of weakly suggestible masculinity; the underlying insinuation of what we've so far seen of this career is that in the America of Trump, Fox News and QAnon, one might never run out of such stories. Under examination here: the eponymous Joe (co-writer Clayne Crawford, who's become to this filmmaker what De Niro was and is to Scorsese), an insurance-flogging family man who's moved out to the wilderness with his wife Tess (Jordana Brewster, an increasingly valuable screen presence) and adopted a moustache, flak jacket and rifle in a bid to fit in with his new surrounds. Joe is at once a more comical creation than the desperate figure Crawford cut in the earlier film: introduced muttering Eastwoodisms into the bathroom mirror, he cranks up the heavy metal in his truck to compensate for an obvious lack of backbone, and spends the first part of his first - eventful - solo hunting expedition asleep up a tree. He's not a total dope, which ensures we retain a certain hope and care for him; conversations with his other half reveal some residual level of mocking self-awareness. Yet he's visibly cosplaying the role of rugged individualist, and so long as there's a loaded gun in the frame, we worry both for him and for anybody else he might meet along this particular trail. It takes a while for the film to stake out its territory: practically the entire first hour is given over to that expedition, by which Joseph Chambers means to persuade himself of his ability to conquer his environment (and maybe bag a buck or two). Yet that added time only goes to underline Machoian's mastery - if that's not too masculine a word - of the unities of time and place. For The Killing of Two Lovers' eerily quiet Everytown, the new film swaps in an even quieter rural backwater, the kind of location where a man might isolate and lose either himself or his marbles, and where a body might lie undiscovered for weeks if not months or years.
The overall Machoian project thus connects with that indie movement that sought to rediscover the parts of America that have gone underchronicled and underfilmed, but Integrity combines its burnished autumnal beauty - très Kelly Reichardt - with a thumping sense of internality. Crawford, who's done more in these two films than some performers do in an entire career, gives the protagonist a boyish levity you might expect from someone who's made his money sweet-talking folks into buying annuities, but Joe's also kidding himself, playing out in the woods with a gun as his new toy. (In an odd but effective choice, Machoian dubs baseball crowd noise over a scene of our guy pitching stones into the trees.) It's performative - the movie would be worth seeing just for the top-o'-the-world song the character makes up mid-hunt - and funny up to a point, but every now and again a flicker of darkness and frustration passes over these features, a sense Joe knows he's never going to be alpha enough, and he'll eventually submit to a near-total breakdown as the dramatic gods nudge him closer to making a hideous error. If the new film isn't quite as forceful as The Killing of Two Lovers - one of the great lost movies of the entire lockdown period - it nevertheless confirms Machoian as something of an expert in the loaded character study: that is to say, the character study that holds to the tension and twists of the best thrillers. It also amply demonstrates that, even in a movie context, patience is a virtue. Long takes and slow tracks reveal the consequences of Joe's posturing, suggest the grimly logical next step in his downward trajectory, and - at the last - capture a fumble towards genuine adult responsibility. (That title is not as ironic as it seems at certain forks in the road.) The real thrill here lies in being confronted yet again by an emergent directorial sensibility apparently unafraid of the pause for thought - and just as we clock the protagonist's surname tallies with his newfound gun hobby, so we might stop to wonder whether someone called Machoian might have had extended cause (perhaps, indeed, all his 46 years) to consider what it is to be a man. At a parlous moment for American cinema, the indie sector in particular, and what remains of the social fabric, it's stirring to see somebody out there who's absolutely and thoroughly doing the work.
The Integrity of Joseph Chambers is now streaming via NOW, and available to rent via Prime and YouTube.