“There ain’t no sin, there ain’t no wrong, there’s just things people do,” opines a washed-up detective (Jason Isaacs) to an unemployed insurance adjuster (Wes Bentley) turned armed robber in what is, remarkably, one of the least heavy-handed moments from “Things People Do,” a wildly overwrought and frequently preposterous recession-era morality play that marks the feature directing debut of veteran film editor Saar Klein. Burdened with absurd plot twists and two-ton metaphors (including a Chekhovian gun and a swimming pool more symbolic than Gatsby’s), this depressive drama about the desperate measures called for by desperate times will need its own strongarm tactics to see any significant theatrical exposure following its Berlin and SXSW premieres. Midrange name cast portends brisker ancillary traffic.
Lest we harbor any doubt about what kind of movie this is going to be, “Things People Do” opens with Bentley’s Bill Scanlin poking around inside a wrecked car in a large auto scrapyard somewhere in the flatlands of overdeveloped, drought-stricken New Mexico. He appears to be working a claim, but we soon find out that Bill has been recently laid off (for approving too many claims) yet continues to go through the motions of his old job, rather like the displaced French office worker of Laurent Cantet’s vastly superior “Time Out.” To the obliviousness of his wife, Susan (Vinessa Shaw), and two young sons, he leaves the house in the morning and arrives back at night after a long day of not very much — and even though Bill isn’t very good about covering his tracks, it takes a rather incredible amount of time before anyone does anything (like, say, trying to call him at the office) that might shatter the illusion.
Well, narrative logic isn’t the strong suit of Klein and co-writer Joe Conway (“Undertow”), especially once a suicidal Bill rather abruptly turns the gun in his hand from himself to a couple of adulterous lovers he finds in flagrante delicto inside a model home. Bill clumsily makes off with the stunned couple’s cash, and it gets him so wired on adrenaline that, in one of the movie’s (unintentionally) funniest scenes, he runs home and has wild, passionate sex with his wife.
Bill turns out to be a very bad thief — even with this new income source, he can’t quite make the mortgage payment — which makes it all the more puzzling that he manages to get away with his crimes for as long as he does. At one point, he dons a stocking mask and robs the very same gas station he frequents as a customer, and yet no one seems to recognize his voice or barely disguised face. (Klein even has robber Bill bump into a display rack in the same exact way as civilian Bill, to no avail.) In another risible moment, Bill abandons a robbery midstream to come to the aid of an elderly man having an asthma attack (brought on by the sight of Bill’s gun).
The police, as represented by Isaacs’ washed-up gumshoe Frank, are no quicker on the draw. He and Bill first meet by chance in a bowling alley, where the cop (who knew Bill’s cop father) and budding criminal bond over their respective disappointments. (Frank has been adrift in a booze-soaked malaise ever since his wife left him.) “Heat” this isn’t, though eventually Frank does manage to piece together the clues — by which point even Inspector Clouseau would have had the perp in hand.
Of course, Klein isn’t really trying to make a genre film per se; starting with that leaden title, it’s clear he’s trying to make an Important Movie About How We Live Now, about the American dream gone bust in the dog days of capitalist excess, rather like … well, a glittering swimming pool filled in by sand. Rarely has one so pined for the comparatively light touch of that other connoisseur of middle-class displeasure, Sam Mendes.
Bentley (who, of course, first came to prominence in Mendes’ “American Beauty”) is an instinctive actor with a certain edginess that seems right for a role like this, but even he is ultimately at a loss to make Bill’s evolution from average Joe to thrill-seeking criminal and back again feel even remotely plausible. The writers haven’t really given him a role to play so much as a series of agitated poses, which is still more than they’ve given to Shaw, who can scarcely conceal how much smarter she is than the character she’s been saddled with. Following on his superb supporting turn in “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” Keith Carradine is thoroughly wasted here in a fleeting appearance as Shaw’s father.
Klein, a frequent collaborator of Terrence Malick’s, tries for some dreamy, Malick-esque imagery with the aid of d.p. Matthias Koenigswieser, and makes atmospheric use of the parched New Mexico vistas — a landscape, alas, that contains more innate dramatic tension than any of the scenes this movie stages against it.