If every movie shot over the past couple of years used the pandemic-required filming-restrictions to its benefit as amply as Robert Machoian’s intimately disquieting marvel of a film The Integrity of Joseph Chambers does, we would be in for a cinematic high as opposite to the real world low we’re trying to escape through the very act of going to the movies these days. Having seen dozens of movies very clearly shot during the pandemic by now, I know this to sadly not be the case—too many just feel empty, with no ideas to elucidate that sense. So even more reason to embrace a rare fruit like this, which uses the isolation of our moment to build a simple and gripping morality tale from it without ever calling attention to itself for those outside factors—Machoian’s film thrums with a timelessness stepped outside of here and outside of now, and as such feels like an immediate classic.
The Integrity of Joseph Chambers reunites Machoian with his The Killing of Two Lovers lead Clayne Crawford, and proves for a second time that we have got a serious director-actor duo to get ourselves good and energized about. (Not to mention that these people know how to title a movie memorably to boot —these are two killer titles!) Crawford plays the man of that title, although everybody just calls him Joe—the solemnity of his full Christian name spelled out end to end for us on the marquee informs us upfront that we’re meant to be somewhat removed from Joe, looking down God-like at his trial and his tribulation, and Machoian shoots the film with a similar sense of detachment. Long takes, wide shots—Joseph née Joe is usually seen as a very small man standing in a very large frame, and yet with nowhere to go.
From the start we know something’s off, although you’d be hard-pressed to pinpoint it—it’s felt in as funny ways as the crispness of Joe’s long-underwear, and the self-fetishization of his brand new mustache. We first meet him trimming that thing in the mirror, fresh as a daisy and as lived-in as a pair of still-tagged dungarees—his wife Tess (Jordana Bwester) eyes the thing suspiciously, wondering who this imposter standing at the end of her bed might be. And as with Emmanuel Carrère’s brilliant short story The Mustache (on which this film is not based but I’d be surprised to find out that Machoian hadn’t read it) that stache spells no good—a disassociation of self suddenly imminent. We never meet the Joe without the stache, before the stache, B.S.. So who be this stached man standing before us? The film knows and it knows core-deep how wobbly our outward presentations of self can be—how we can shave the hairs on our face into a new shape one morning and decide that’s who we are going to be on this day, and of what sand that foundation is formed.
Joe, we discover in conversation with his wife, is thinking about The End Of Days, which makes him more regular “Joe” like by the minute. Because who isn’t? But Joe’s decided to be proactive—he’s shaved himself a mustache and he’s bought himself a cute little hunting outfit and he’s going to go into the woods and shoot something ad show them all that he is a man who can feed his family in the ways of men throughout history. Tess in incredulous, sweetly so but still, but then she knew the Joe Before Stache—to us, even if his underwear are awfully crisp and his haircut looks expensive, well, he does have that mustache. Isn’t that what a man who shoots things and takes care of his family, in the way of generations upon generations of mustached men, looks like? Behaves? Joe manages to convince her as such, or she humors him enough anyway, and he then convinces his adolescent boy (played by Crawford’s real son) as such too. And he does it with such sweet simple good humor and kindness that we can tell from the start—this Joseph Chambers? He’s a good dude. He’s got, what’s the word? He’s got integrity.
It’s when our Joe née Joseph Chambers gets into the woods by himself and he starts swinging around that gun and that mustache in equal measure that the titular integrity comes into question. While the film’s title might at first glance present it as a given, as an actuality of substance, “integrity” is actually more mustache-adjacent in this film’s conception of it than all that. Because is integrity a thing we can muster out of nowhere—a shape we can shave ourselves into? A thing we can conjure up with just a shovel and a determined mind? There are so many options, so many paths one can take in life that lead to one outcome or another—we can be good men with mustaches. We can be bad men with beards. I hear there are hairless people with no personalities at all even, but I wouldn’t recommend getting into their trucks at four in the morning.
Anyway everything goes to shit, and soon Joe needs to summon up his inner “Joseph Chambers” and sort out what kind of man he is, out there in those empty woods. Woods that are in theory empty, but in practice anything but—Machoian’s frames are cluttered with vertiginous knives of branch and tree forms, and his soundscape is a caophony of things moving, crying, that we cannot see. Like The Killing of Two Lovers before it The Integrity of Joseph Chambers proves these filmmakers ones not just to watch, but to actively chase. To run in the general direction of whenever you are given the opportunity. This movie’s the bomb, basically—a slow and methodical disintegration of American Masculinity as spied on from just far off enough as to give us the full devastating picture. Crawford is tremendous. Gorgeously lensed, contemplative, lightly comic when it needs to be and a shot blasted straight through our heart when it doesn’t, Joseph Chambers is one of the best films I have seen this year. Mustaches or no.