The Adjuster (1991) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

The Robbins recipe:  Terry Gilliam, meet David Lynch.

Atom Egoyan is now more or less a mainstream director, after his dazzling success, "The Sweet Hereafter", which lifted him from the status of obscure arthouse hotshot to an Academy Award nomination for best director. 

I'm not sure he'll ever reach that height again unless he looks deep inside himself to find what made it work for him. In his earlier films, the images and music and plot lines imbue nearly every scene with a sense of intense creepiness. The same is true of his last film, Felicia's Journey. But in between there, he turned out his two masterpieces, and here's why they worked better, in my opinion.

  • In "Exotica", he turned the tables on himself. He used his circular story-telling technique to slowly reveal that all the scenes that we found creepy were, in fact, quite innocent. The film was really about the sense of loss, and how we deal with that.
  • In "The Sweet Hereafter", he abandoned mannered creepiness for whatever mood he needed for each scene. He needed some of his stock creepy mood for father-daughter incest, but in other scenes he just let the people's stories tell themselves, wherever they led. 


Jennifer Dale is naked from the side in a VERY dark sex scene in which nothing can be seen without photographic enhancement.

Paul Bettes shows his erect organ as the billboard vagabond

Raoul Trujillo is seen naked from behind

The highly literary style of his narrative really presents no problem in any of his films. In both of his masterpieces, he kept his arty story-telling technique. Typically, he shows various scenes from seemingly unrelated stories, and we only understand their relationship as time progresses, and the onion is peeled. In "Sweet Hereafter", mainstream audiences had no problem with his narrative style, and most people felt that it added a sense of mystery and managed to increase viewer involvement without any undue confusion. (Soderbergh used a similar technique in "Out of Sight"). So it wasn't his arty technique that kept his earlier films and "Felicia's Journey" from being successes.

What was it then? In my book, it was the plain old affected creepiness. This film is a perfect illustration.

Elias Koteas plays an insurance adjuster. he gets so involved in the lives of the people that he's trying to help, that he develops an intimate rapport with them. He ends up turning this intimacy into sex indiscriminately. Beautiful women, old women, men, he makes no distinction. he is apparently aroused by his own sense of compassion. 

Arsinee Khanjian plays his wife. She works in a government facility similar to the ones in "Brazil", in which ultra-creepy employees memorize rules of objectionable content, and spend their days censoring such content out of movies. Every one of her days passes in a windowless smoke-filled office, where a score of Bob Cratchits listen to and watch porn. The office is filled with the sounds of porno films, and they all occasionally gather in a dark creepy theater to watch the films together, while their boss acts as projectionist. 

The couple lives in an undeveloped development. A builder created a model home, then went broke before building any more. The couple bought bought the model because it was so cheap. Their beautiful home is out in a field of mud, surrounded only by pictorial billboards which show where the other houses were to have been built.

Creepy enough for you? Not even close for Atom. There's plenty more.

She has a sister who doesn't speak English at all, but the two sisters are very close, so Arsinee secretly tapes all the porno films in the office, so she can share them with her sister. Elias enjoys picturing himself as Robin Hood, especially because of his adjuster job, and he lives out this fantasy by shooting arrows into the surrounding city of billboards. Living out there amongst the billboards is a vagabond, whose only contact with them is to masturbate at their sliding door. He has discovered a way to stand in front of the billboards so that he can't be detected from a distance.

Now the creepiest element of all comes in. A rich couple can't find any satisfaction in life, so they engage in a weird kind of exhibitionistic street theater. She dresses up as a cheerleader and prances around in front of a football team. He pretends to be a subway bum, and she pretends to be an elegant woman who makes out with the old bum in front of many people. They will enter the life of the first couple.

Got the idea?

It is also structured in a very literary way, and is even more circular than Egoyan's later films.

  • Arsinee watches the subway scene with the lady and the old bum, and she later re-enacts the scene with one of her fellow censors. 
  • The film ends with a scene almost identical to the opening scene, except that some characters are in different roles!

Frankly, all this contrivance and artificiality really wore on me. 

You could absolutely see back then that Egoyan was a brilliant talent. Some scenes are beautifully crafted, and have the ability to change your mood, even if you don't know what the hell is going on. That's impressive. And you do get involved in the puzzle of putting the parts together. There are plenty of great parts, but the whole .... unsatisfying.

The endless meaningful pauses, the endless plot contrivances, the endless creepiness, the lack of somebody real and wholesome to cling to ... all of that doesn't make it a very pleasant experience. Plus I still didn't understand a lot of it. I don't think the guy who lived in the billboards had any purpose except to magnify the creepiness.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 2.35:1

  • no significant features (there is a trailer)

Egoyan has claimed in interviews that this is a black comedy. I suppose it is in a sense. It is hyperbole, which is a comic technique, so it does have a fun house mirror, evil clown kinda humor. But it is one of the most depressing, least funny movies ever made. If you are familiar with "The Sweet Hereafter", it is no funnier than that. The only lighter element is that the people in it have merely lost their homes rather than their children. I guess Atom thinks that if losing ones children is tragedy, merely losing ones home must be some gay lighthearted fare.

I've already decided that I don't want to attend comedies with Aristotle. Add Atom to the list.

If this is his sense of fun, I'll still go to his movies, but I sure don't want to party with the dude. 

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: almost three stars. Ebert 3/4, Berardinelli 2.5/4 

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 7.0, 
  • With their dollars ... it wasn't a smash, hit, but it took in $21 million domestic on a $13 million budget. It maxed out at just less than 2000 screens. It was really kind of an underperformer when you consider the positive reception from critics and moviegoers.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+. An art-house masterpiece, but too slow and artificial for mainstream audiences.

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