1 Hr., 51 Mins.
Trouble in Mind
April 3, 2020
rouble in Mind (1985) is in a state of “used to be.” Its protagonist, hirsute and dismayed Hawk (Kris Kristofferson), used to be a cop. (As the film opens he’s being released from prison, having completed the murder sentence that ended his career.) When he comes “home” — to the grimy, fictional metropolis Rain City — he first stops by the café owned by the woman he used to love, Wanda (Geneviève Bujold). She
used to be in love with him, too. They will not fall back in it. Hawk will soon come to pine for a naïve young woman named Georgia (Lori Singer) who comes to town, from the countryside, with her controlling husband Coop (Keith Carradine) and their baby, in the name of a better life. But soon into the film does Coop turn to a life of crime, slowly losing sight of what brought him to Rain City in the first place. Then Georgia is someone who used to be in love with Coop. Trouble in Mind is always looking backward, romanticizing decidedly unromantic days past. Because in the here and now, things platitudinously seem to go nowhere but down. Looking forward almost always proves thankless.
Trouble in Mind is not a private-detective movie, but it looks and feels like one. If not for our acute awareness that it’s set in an unspecified future (army men prowl the streets for an undetermined cause; when we get looks into the upper echelons of society, its inhabitants are wearing alien-looking clothing), we might guess it was set sometime in a hard-bitten version of the 1950s, and that it was written by someone like Raymond Chandler. Its cynical dialogue has a witty, pulpy kick to it; the misfortunes, like in the most iconic of films noir, are rendered with a sort of dark lyricism. Hawk is an obvious stand-in for the main shamus despite not really being or having to solve a mystery like one.
There’s a little absurdism at play in Trouble in Mind. Coop cannot, for instance, just be an idiotic criminal; he also must be an outré dresser, evidenced by an evolving German punk-like look. We worry he’ll eventually start to resemble a second-rate Klaus Nomi. These characters, and these tableaux, are noir homages with a warped center. Cigarette smoke is thicker; alleyways more steeped in shadow; guns bigger. Hawk keeps a miniature of Rain City at home; he gazes at it often. Disillusionment still overwhelms the quirks, though. In idiosyncratically translating the tones and textures of film noir, writer-director Alan Rudolph has retooled conventions so that the gotten-used-to pessimism would triple while the visual distinctions would get broader.
The film doesn’t totally work. The style is undeniably striking; much of the exterior world-building is especially admirable since much of what Rudolph shows us here are just visions of the dumpier parts of Seattle. Rudolph and his actors bring to the fore a convincing sense of the hopelessness these characters are feeling; Kristofferson is expressly good as the down-and-out antihero who knows his worth but also knows well that he long ago irreversibly blew what he had going for him. He tells us so much with just his downturned eyes. Yet there’s an ultimately incompatible self-consciousness to Trouble in Mind that dissuades us from really giving ourselves over to it. Rudolph is working hard to make neo-noir arty in an almost-European way. (The movie, in spurts, has the darker, measured qualities seen in more somber works by Wim Wenders and Rainer Werner Fassbinder.) But he's also trying to make a feature that I think is meant to be more “naturalistic” than the movies he’s harking back to — an end goal that depending on your vantage point is either undercut or unexpectedly complemented by the way the feature is also more artificial and ultra-constructed (visually and thematically, at least) than most films noir.
All this posturing makes the movie finally cold to the touch — too cautious about thrilling or evoking much emotion. It’s like a play in which the superiority of the actors and the cleverness of the playwright are all high and mighty but also one where, once the curtains close, all we’re left with are the memories of how good the actors were and how smart the writing was but not so much how it made us feel. In a film that has instilled in it so much poignancy à la the whole “used to be” thing, that shouldn’t be the case. B