Harry hasn't heard from Kelley in something like thirty years, and when he does, the guy's literally calling from his deathbed. "Do you remember the night we almost killed Kagan?" he asks. Harry does. "I'm going to hell for it," Kelly tells him. Harry's pretty sure he is too. But Kelley's guilt and fear gets Harry thinking, and he decides maybe it's time to deal with what happened that night, all those many years ago.
It's an intriguing set-up--the return of sins from the past is a venerable construct. Bette Gordon's Handsome Harry takes that notion into some fairly familiar areas, but does so in a skillful manner. The script is problematic, to be sure, but the sturdy performers (Gordon has assembled some of the best character actors in the business) and the sure-handed direction manage to ride those bumps out with grace.
Harry (Jamey Sheridan) is divorcee, living in upstate New York and running his own electrical business. He's celebrating his birthday with his son when the call comes from Kelley (Steve Buscemi), his old Navy buddy; he heads to Philadelphia to try and comfort his friend from long ago. Kelley is haunted by the brutal beating that the group of friends gave to Kagan, one of their own, and hopes to get forgiveness before he's dies, but it's too late. Harry still harbors questions and guilt about that night, so he hits the road, seeking out the other men who were there to try to understand what happened, and why.
In its opening scenes, Handsome Harry stakes out such a specific sense of time and place, it's a little disappointing to see it fall into the easy formula of the road movie/voyage to self-discovery/etc. Within that formula, it relies too much on a repeated dramatic pattern; Harry meets up with each old chum, they exchange pleasantries, and then the screenplay gins up a conflict between them, presumably to make everything more serious and dramatic.
The picture also employs the increasingly tiresome device of the gradually-expanding flashback--we get glimpses, and then a little more as the film progresses, until the end, when (a-ha) it all makes sense. It's an overused trope, particularly when the a-ha moment is as easily predictable as this one. And several scenes don't play at all--the scene in the classroom with Porter (Aidan Quinn) isn't the least bit credible, and the dinner table explosion by Rheems (John Savage) doesn't build in a logical way (it's too much, too soon).
But if the broad strokes are often too bold, the small details, and the moment-to-moment life on screen, lives and breathes in a way that keeps us keyed in. Sheridan's quiet, nuanced performance is a major motor; he glides through the bulk of the film, taking it all in without revealing much, then letting us in beautifully in the last twenty or so minutes. He has a wonderful, understated scene on a dance floor, in which he gets lost in his on world, in the density of his memories, which all seem held tightly in his face and body. Later, he has a moment of bruised, regretful reaction that pulls the entire narrative taught (he's doing some heavy lifting there, without breaking a sweat). It's a powerful piece of acting.
His supporting actors mostly hold their own. Quinn fares perhaps the best--his subtle portrayal of the academic intellectual is fully realized in just one short scene, and just watch the specific way he says goodbye to Harry (it's a great moment of real film acting). Buscemi's appearance is also brief, but he's effectively used--he's not our healthiest-looking actor to begin with, so he's particularly convincing as an unhappy man knocking on death's door. Campbell Scott, likewise, turns in a memorably haunted performance. Karen Young and Bill Sage, as the people who come closest to knowing Harry in his hometown, have an lovely authenticity, and convey their relationships mostly in action and reaction. About the only actor who comes off poorly is John Savage; it's great to see him in a decent film, but he's overworking it, too caricatured with his tough-guy accent.
Bette Gordon is an interesting filmmaker--her 1983 film Variety (screened, with this one, at last year's Tribeca Film Festival) was one of the seminal films of the American independent film movement, and that film, like this one, had some odd detours and inexplicable meanderings. But she is a skillful director--the photography is moody and warmly desaturated, and the pieces fit together evenly, even when they shouldn't. Some of it is contrived, and some of it is predictable, but Handsome Harry is a compelling, well-made picture nonetheless.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.