In “The Integrity of Joseph Chambers,” Clayne Crawford plays a middle-class insurance salesman who wakes up, shaves his mustache into something from the Chuck Norris/Burt Reynolds catalog of masculinity, kisses his wife Tess (Jordana Brewster) goodbye and sets out for an early morning hunting expedition. Say what you will about the Second Amendment, but Joseph Chambers has no business bearing arms, and this trip seems like a recipe for trouble.
Writer-director Robert Machoian’s follow-up to “The Killing of Two Lovers” unspools like a stripped-down, one-man “Deliverance”: No group of buddies on a weekend canoe trip. No dueling banjos. No hillbilly-inflicted sexual humiliation. Just a guy with a rifle in the woods, determined to prove something to the world about his capacity for self-reliance — a capacity that is very much in question with nearly every decision he makes. Just look at the way Joseph holds a rifle, carelessly pointing it toward the face of the friend who loans it to him. No wonder Tess won’t let him keep a gun at home.
A prolific shorts filmmaker and still photographer, Machoian specializes in spare, ground-level dramas about relatable everyday folks. Picture small, Kelly Reichardt-style portraits of imperfect people. With “Integrity,” the director rejects all the tough-guy movie tropes that its protagonist measures himself against, producing a sly study of perceived impotence on the part of a husband/father who lacks the basic survival skills society expects of a man.
As the protector and provider for his family, does he want to appear strong? Or is his goal to feel less afraid of some abstract modern threat? As Crawford embodies it, Joseph’s stubborn determination echoes Richard Dreyfuss in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” or Michael Shannon in “Take Shelter,” minus those movies’ supernatural dimension. Joseph’s obliviousness is underlined by Tess’ coy offer for sex, which he’s too distracted to accept — so determined to demonstrate his virility that he passes up the easiest way to do so.
Instead, he kisses his two sons and heads out, borrowing a manly four-door pickup and gun from his buddy. He can barely maneuver the truck. There’s a thin line between comedy and tragedy at play here, and Machoian might easily have let the scene go longer, observing as Joseph makes a 17-point turn to get the butch vehicle out of the driveway. Instead, Machoian favors slow, quiet scenes, leaning into the tension of where Joseph’s hubris will take him.
Cinematographer Oscar Ignacio Jiménez frames things from a distance, the uncommon, boxy aspect ratio suggesting a domestic family slideshow more than the adventure movie at the center of which Joseph imagines himself. When this ill-prepared chump gets to the woods, he doesn’t know how to safely handle a weapon, but swells with pride while carrying it. Composer William Ryan Fritch’s score puts us on edge, blending with sound designer Peter Albrechtsen’s ambient wind and wildlife noises to unnerving effect. When Joseph climbs the ladder to the tree stand and takes a seat, applause erupts. Some hero.
Hunting means waiting, but Joseph doesn’t know that. He’s bored, but that doesn’t mean we are — at least not if we’ve managed to put ourselves on the movie’s wavelength (which is admittedly asking a lot of most audiences). After dozing off for a time in the tree, Joseph finally spots a deer across the clearing. And then something happens that will test his instincts further, sending him into a tailspin of lousy choices, each one revealing just how far he truly is from the rugged wilderness man he wants to be.
Ready for it? (Spoilers ahead. Skip to the final paragraph if you haven’t seen the film.) Joseph hears a noise behind him, he spins and discharges the gun. The ironically titled “Integrity” takes place partly in Joseph’s head, but also very far from it, studying him the way a child might the insects crawling about his ant farm. It takes a very long time for Joseph to walk over to the spot where the bullet hit. There, he discovers a man (Michael Raymond-James) lying still, with a wound in his chest.
Is he dead? Joseph doesn’t think to check. He’s so shaken by the situation that he starts talking to himself, trying to spin his culpability any way he can — such chatter isn’t entirely convincing, but provides some insight into what he’s thinking. Joseph stumbles back to the truck, where he curls up in a fetal position and blubbers at his bad luck. What happens next also feels informed by a hundred movies he may have watched: the kind where a decent man’s life is turned upside down by a mistake, or where desperate killers chop the corpse into pieces to hide the evidence (he doesn’t go that far).
The absurdity would be hilarious if it weren’t so horrifying. Your mileage may vary. Gun control advocates have plenty to grab on to here, though that’s a more simplistic way to read the movie, which, like “The Killing of Two Lovers” before it, focuses on a certain incapacity on the part of contemporary men to channel their frustration. Joseph lacks not only the basic training for a day in the woods, but also the emotional maturity to acknowledge those shortcomings. Still, it’s not as if Tess is pressuring him to prove himself. Like blasting your own foot off with a shotgun, this situation is entirely self-inflicted. Machoian could have made “Integrity” more engaging, folding the same ideas into a more broadly accessible film, but in a way, his minimalist, patience-testing style obliges us to engage with Joseph’s choices. That sense of exasperation you feel may well be the point. We can’t all be Rambo.