Atom Egoyan: The Adjuster (1991) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
31May/110

Atom Egoyan: The Adjuster (1991)

Andrew COMMENTARYThere's not a single character in The Adjuster that hasn't constituted their entire reality on the basis of how someone else looks at them.  There have been hints that Egoyan was going to make a film that pushes the deconstruction of identity this far, but to this point it was kept somewhat under control.  At least with Speaking Parts I was able to see the fragments of individuals and what they really want, The Adjuster just provides us with people with no initial entrance or exit point.

As the saying goes in psychology, the only way out is in.  So in we must plunge.

The Adjuster is a different kind of film from Egoyan.  It still plays with all the same kind of psychological trappings but there is a resignation of peace about it.  There are genuine conflicts in his first three features, a tension that is palpable and issues that we can comment on directly as viewers.  The problems in The Adjuster are not so simple and Egoyan modifies his tone appropriately.

The change is as subtle as the mystery of his opening shot.  The camera lingers close on a hand while we hear the mixture of exotic music and what seem to be orgiastic moans in the background.  We're all prepared for an erotic charge when the camera pulls back but it's just the somewhat stifled bedroom of Noah (Elias Koteas) and Hera (Arsinee Khanjian).

Egoyan doesn't blur the gender lines this time around, but just presents desire as something that can be satiated by what's available and attractive - male or female.

Whatever spark was between these two people is now only evoked in distant memory.  He is an insurance adjuster, sent to the sites where someone's house has burnt down to offer solace and comfort.  She is a film censor, who goes into a darkened building day after day to view scenes of perversity that she records for her sister.  You see, her sister needs those recordings because they have shared everything since they were children.  They even share being a mother now, with Seta (Rose Sarkisyan) caring for Hera's child while she and Noah are away.

Into their lives come the completely unhinged couple of of Bubba (Maury Haykin) and Mimi (Gabrielle Rose).  Bubba loves Mimi so much that he's willing to indulge in her every fantasy - be it renting out a football team so that she can dance like a cheerleader in front of them, or finding the perfect isolated home (such and Noah and Hera's) so that Mimi can live out her mother fantasy.  So Bubba rents out their home, and almost at once, everyone realizes exactly how little of themselves exists to give to someone else.

This is a dangerous collusion of half-formed identities and drives.  Noah lives solely for his charges, setting them up in the same hotel where he will please them physically (evidence suggests he's not picky about the sex) as well as calming them emotionally and setting them up financially.  So who is he when he's alone?  He's not much of anyone, lacking an identity as a full partner in his relationship with Hera and only able to assume the role of benefactor when something has gone wrong.

Noah lives for his charges, Hera lives for her sister and to stifle portions of film, Bubba lives for Mimi but can't watch her fantasies, and Mimi looks and acts like a completely different person each time we see her.  So what is Egoyan getting at with all this?  We're left without the handicap of technology this time, at least so directly as in Speaking Parts with it's video mausoleum.  True the characters live through technology in some ways, Hera with her film projector and Bubba with his polaroid camera, but there's little to suggest what they're getting out of the technology this time.

Mimi is obsessed with other people watching her sexuality, something that Bubba will indulge but can't watch himself. It's an uniquely asexual component to activities charged with sex.

What it boils down to is how we're obsessed with putting up a front without any sort of imagination or muscle to back it up.  There are books in Hera's household, but they're actually cardboard copies with just the edges intact and no words to speak of.  Yes, Noah is empathetic and willing to satisfy, but it only goes so far as when he is in the bedrooms of his clients or traversing their waste.  The clients themselves begin to question what they even have, with one particularly grateful victim wondering why she should even bother reconstructing her life now that it's rubble?

All of this ties in to a single shot toward the end of the film that suggests how Noah and Hera ended up this way, and also points in the direction that Egoyan's films will take from this point onward.  Bubba, free to stage Mimi's ultimate fantasy, becomes disgusted at the way she wants to introduce sexuality to young boys (she plays strip poker in the guise of a birthday party) and burns down Hera's home while Mimi sings upstairs and Noah can do nothing but watch.  Then as Noah's hand caresses the fire we flash back to the first time he met Hera, right after a fire that she had, and how he ingratiated himself into her life with a quick and caring connection.

Many blanks are filled in about Noah and Hera with that moment.  Noah feeds off of empathy, and Hera gave him a means with which to open that conduit.  They don't need to challenge each other so long as they can feed off of their emotional cycle, and they both just happen to have professions that cater to that.  But what of Mimi and Bubba?  Well, they aren't so lucky.

They exist almost as plot contrivances to lead us to the traumatic event that brought Noah and Hera together.  Noah and Hera are broken people, but we at least get a sense of how they ended up that way.  Bubba and Mimi, on the other hand, arrived onto the scene fully intoxicated with their craziness and leave just the same way.  They're dramatic whisps, engaged in the plot just enough to arrive at destruction but little else.

This isn't to say that The Adjuster is a failure, it's still an amazingly evocative piece of work.  Egoyan shoots each scene with a bit of misdirection that is prevalent in the opening moments with the hands, right to Mimi's crazy fantasies that Hera almost seems to be watching through the projector at times.  More suggestion, perhaps Mimi recognized in Hera someone that would be willing to play along, then went to far when she didn't remain?  The questions pile up wonderfully, there's just little to suggest much in the way of an answer.

David Hemblen is such a wonderful presence in Egoyan's films, finding another tone of decadence and sadism in his role as the head censor.

All that said, I am enthralled from the opening frames of The Adjuster even if it's not as exhilarating an experience as Speaking Parts or Family Viewing.  There are still moments of magnificently maintained creepiness, brought to you by another David Hemblen role as the head censor.  I also appreciate the step back from some of the sensationalist plotting, but those films carried explanations while this one just has the whif of an idea.  It's still an ambitious movie, but seems a few scenes away from the greatness that it's reaching for.

Still, two important things have been established with this film that Egoyan follows for most of his remaining films (save Calendar, but we'll get to that next week).  First, his pace is more deliberately evocative, letting his  shots linger over seemingly inconsequential details while our minds try and figure out what is going on.  He fractures the time-line in this way, though not as much here, to give a better portrait of grief.  Second, there is an inciting moment of trauma that sends everyone spiraling into each other's lives.  In later films Egoyan becomes more concerned with how everyone deals with that trauma, and not just the leads.

The Adjuster doesn't hold up as well on rewatch as his other films but it's still an impressive accomplishment.  Next week we have what may be Egoyan's most experimental film, and the one where he turns the camera on himself, the documentary-esque Calendar.

The Adjuster (1991)
Written and directed by Atom Egoyan.
Starring Elias Koteas,  Arsinee Khanjian, Maury Haykin and Gabrielle Rose.

Egoyan with text

Posted by Andrew

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