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I had only seen Scottish filmmaker Bill Forsyth's Breaking In (1989) once, in an otherwise empty theater more than 30 years ago, but quite liked it then and anxious to revisit it on Blu-ray. Forsyth made some of the best movies of the 1980s, but stumbled when his small-scale but charming Scottish films became bigger-budgeted, American-financed ones.
He began with the amusing That Sinking Feeling (1979) but first attracted attention internationally with Gregory's Girl, a sweet, quirky comedy about awkward high school student Gregory (John Gordon Sinclair) who falls in love with the girl who replaces him as centre forward on his school's football team. Forsyth followed this with Local Hero (1983), his biggest hit, a delightful comedy-drama about an American oil company anxious to buy up an idyllic coastal village in the Scottish Highlands to build an ugly oil refinery. That film starred American actors Peter Riegert and Burt Lancaster, along with Scottish talent like Denis Lawson and Fulton Mackay. Three years later Forsyth made Housekeeping (1989), a superb adaptation of Marilynne Robinson's novel, with Christine Lahti in the lead.
After Breaking In Forsyth stumbled spectacularly with Being Human (1994), a big-budget ($40 million) Hollywood film starring Robin Williams. Originally three hours long, the film tested poorly and Forsyth was forced to make damaging changes, including cutting nearly 40 minutes from his film. Nothing helped. It remains a Robin Williams movie few even know exists. Forsyth retrenched with Gregory's Two Girls (1999), a belated sequel with Gregory, now himself an adult high school teacher, falling for one of his students. Daring in its awkward political incorrectness, it received mixed reviews and Forsyth hasn't made a film since.
Probably part of the reason is that his unique films aren't easily categorized. People that see them tend to love them, even when they're not sure why. Breaking In isn't a crime or heist film, though it has elements from those genres. It's full of humorous observations but isn't an outright comedy, either. It's closer to an intimate character study about a slightly sad and pathetic pair of unlikely partners in crime, but even at its saddest moments the film's absurdities take the edge off the downer dramatic aspects.
Burt Reynolds was 53 at the time but plays older, 61-year-old small-time but veteran safecracker Ernie Mullins. During a home robbery, he encounters 20-something Mike (Casey Siemaszko), who coincidentally has broken into the same house at the same time, though in Mike's case he's only interested in raiding the refrigerator and reading the homeowner's mail and looking at family photos. Bemused by Mike's strange interests but impressed by his amateur-level talents, Ernie invites Mike to partner up, Mike as a lookout and apprentice in the art of cracking safes. Mike, stuck in a dead-in job at an auto repair shop, is instantly attracted to the supposed glamor.
They successfully pull off several jobs, all a lead-up to a Big Score long planned by Ernie: the Fourth of July robbery of a huge safe beneath a roller rink at an amusement park. There are problems, though. Mike has been foolishly spending his share of the robberies ostentatiously, trying to impress his prostitute-girlfriend, Carrie (Sheila Kelley), herself apprenticing under career hooker Delphine (Lorraine Toussaint). Carrie is as dumb as Mike is.
The plot of Breaking In, a screenplay by John Sayles, is almost irrelevant, as are the handful of supporting parts, including Harry Carey Jr. and Albert Salmi as Ernie's retired cronies. The movie is really about the characters of Ernie and Mike, and their relationship with one another. Ernie is something of an artist, but his is a lonely, solitary profession, and in a strangely beguiling way he wants to pass on his decades of experience to Mike, who has the talent but not the temperament. Ernie lives modestly, so as not to attract the attention of investigators or tax auditors, his indulges limited to a little gambling at the track and occasional nights out with Delphine, a pleasant relationship with borderlines clearly but not unpleasantly and set in stone.
Mike, despite his peculiar interests breaking into people's homes and rummaging through their personal effects, is so agreeably naïve he's impossible to dislike. He's the sort of person incapable of anticipating the consequences of his actions, like buying a ludicrously flashy car (likely previously owned by a pimp) certain to attract attention; his only concern is pleasing a girlfriend who, in her own way, is playing him without quite realizing it herself. In another scene Mike is distressed watching a television news report about their robbery of a church; he can't process Ernie's belief that the church is probably crooked, its leaders pocketing all the donations, or that in stealing its safe the church's alleged charity work will be stymied. He just can't think that far ahead.
They're both losers: Mike's career as a thief seems doomed from the start while Ernie, limping on a bad knee, has maybe two or three good years left and has no family to leave behind. Each feels sorry for the other but they both accept what life dishes out without complaint. Mike is as dumb as Stan Laurel to Ernie's Oliver Hardy, but like that comedy team, Mike and Ernie genuinely care about one another, and Breaking In is unexpectedly life-affirming.
This was easily Burt Reynolds's best role since 1981's Sharkey Machine, and one of the very few decent films he made for many years after. Forsyth had wanted John Mahoney, then considered Paul Newman and Jack Nicholson, but Reynolds was an inspired choice, his casting carrying the weight of Reynolds's own dead-end career at that point.
Video & Audio
Originally released by The Samuel Goldwyn Company, Kino's Blu-ray of Breaking In is a fine encoding of this barely-distributed film, the 1.85:1 presentation and colors intact, while the DTS-HD 2.0 audio is above average. Optional English subtitles are provided on this Region "A" disc.
Supplements include a trailer and a strong audio commentary track with Forsyth and Sayles, moderated by Daniel Kremer.
Small-scale but highly rewarding, Breaking In is the kind of movie dominated by two intriguing characters one enjoys getting to know, with a final scene set at a jail during visiting hours that's quite touching, leaving audiences caring about their futures after the end titles roll. Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian largely absent from reviewing these days while he restores a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.