Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Natural Enemies

"Dark" doesn't even begin to describe NATURAL ENEMIES.

This 1979 film, which can be viewed in its entirety here, is a psychological drama that never cuts corners. Hal Holbrook stars as Paul Steward, a late-middle aged magazine publisher trapped in a state of mental and emotional hell. Based on a novel by Julius Horowitz, it places its protagonist in a crushing environment (New York City in the late 1970s) and examines his total loss of humanity.

On the surface, Paul has a comfortable life, with a wife (Miriam, played by Louise Fletcher), three children, a home in Connecticut, and running a successful science magazine. However, he's become obsessed with a series of news stories detailing recent murders involving married men who - suddenly, and without any explanation - take the lives of their families before killing themselves.

NATURAL ENEMIES starts from here, and depicts Paul on his last day on earth. In its methodical depiction of its protagonist's daily routine, the film is almost reminiscent of John G. Avildsen's SAVE THE TIGER (1973), but unlike Jack Lemmon's garment factory owner in that film, Paul Steward is already dead to himself when we meet him.

A series of flashbacks provides the account of the deterioration of Paul and Miriam's marriage - a sexless, loveless affair - and reveals the total dissolution of their relationship that followed Miriam's nervous breakdown and her subsequent shock therapy treatment. But we get the impression that these are still merely symptoms, not causes, of a much larger problem, which ultimately - like the family murder/suicide cases that Paul obsesses over in the news - remain chillingly unexplained.

Paul attempts to reach out by talking about his interest in these murders to seemingly anyone who will listen. His friend, Harry Rosenthal (Jose Ferrer), a Holocaust survivor, does his best to try to convey to Paul how good he really has things, but Paul won't be convinced. A therapist friend (Viveca Lindfors) encourages him to seek help. But Paul decides to spend the afternoon with five prostitutes in a brothel, in a kind of gift to himself on his last day. That night, when his train back to Connecticut breaks down in the dark, he shares another sexual encounter - this time with a lonely, neglected and unsatisfied housewife, a kind of mirror image of himself. The emptiness of it all reveals how desperate he is to be moved by some kind of experience, any kind. And it continues right up through the film's relentlessly upsetting and dark conclusion.

NATURAL ENEMIES takes no easy way out with its story. The last five or ten minutes of the film is where most other films would offer some kind of redemption for their protagonist. Paul would realize how good he's got things, or some such, and would vow to start anew. Not in this film.

There's a moment toward the end, where Miriam is trying to get Paul to tell her "what's wrong" - as if it could simply be summed up in a few words. He finally lets loose, telling her how much he hates everything about his life - the house, his family, the "pretentious bullshit" of the magazine he publishes, etc. It's a moment that rings hauntingly true - Paul Steward quite literally hates everything about his day-to-day existence. And though the film doesn't provide a neat-and-tidy explanation for the horrific actions its protagonist eventually takes, it certainly provides a glimpse in to what makes him tick.

Director Jeff Kanew takes a stylistically straightforward approach with the material, emphasizing the ordinariness about so much of Paul's situation. Hal Holbrook turns in a genuinely disturbing performance. For all of the horror it depicts, it never moves toward sensationalism. Even the scenes involving the five prostitutes in the brothel are handled in such a way that they take on a quality of the ordinary; all part of Kanew's effective minimalist approach.