Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Review: "The Barber"

Scott Glenn is hardly a household name, but he's long been one of my favorite actors. With his taut gaze, sharp-featured face, stoic demeanor and rangy physique, Glenn is the sort of actor's actor who could play a cowboy, an astronaut, a lawyer, just about anything -- and has.

Often when I'm reading a book with a distinctive male character, I unconsciously summon the image and sound of Glenn to personify him. It can even happen more than once in the same novel. Reading Stephen King's "The Stand," I instantly pictured main protagonist Stu Redman as him. But then when I came across the exploits of antichrist-like Randall Flagg, aka "the Walking Dude," I realized that his darkling smile would be ideally suited on Glenn's face, too.

Actors with that sort of malleable screen persona tend not to get cast in many leading roles, and now that Glenn is in his 70s his recent work has been almost entirely in supporting parts -- often playing the villain or the wise old master who tutors the hero, as in the new television version of "Daredevil."

So I was glad to hear about "The Barber," a psychological thriller in which Glenn stars. It's being released in a few theaters nationwide and on video on demand this week. Even if you're not the sort, like me, who'd watch pretty much anything Glenn was in, it's a well-made film with some nice performances and some clever twists of the plot.

He plays Eugene Van Wingerdt, an amiable older man living in an amiable small town in the Midwest, Moraine. It's a picture-pretty place with a main drag of handsome stores, one of which is Gene's barber shop. There he plies his trade, admonishes his young apprentice, Luis (Max Arciniega), not to swear so much, and pals around with the chief of police (Stephen Tobolowsky, another standout veteran character actor).

Then a scruffy young man named John (Chris Coy) comes to town, muttering something about all the girls Gene killed long ago. It seems that Gene, then known as Frank Visser, was the main suspect in a rash of 17 serial killings in which young women were abducted and buried alive. He was released for lack of evidence, pulled up stakes and moved to Moraine for a fresh start 20 years ago.

It's soon revealed that John is the son of the Chicago detective who pursued Visser all those years ago, eventually putting a bullet in his own head over his inability to catch the murderer, who repeatedly called to taunt him about not saving the latest victim. A cop himself, John is determined to catch the guy his father couldn't, by pretending to be a fellow killer looking for a mentor.

Director Basel Owies and screenwriter Max Enscoe adroitly play around with the audience's expectations, first giving us a picture of an innocent man who really was the victim of an overzealous police investigation. Gene walks around with a stooped, stiff-ambled gait, is a regular church-goer and quiet pillar of the community.

"A man's appearance should always show self-respect, not self-importance," Gene opines, like a seer of the Norman Rockwell set.

But the mask slips, revealing a calculating oldster with a bird-of-prey mien who clearly has something to hide. Is Gene really the serial killer, or is he just leading John on in a lame attempt for attention and companionship in his declining years? The way he talks about young girls as "yummies" or "birdies" who tempt his inner demons certainly gives us pause.

But Glenn's grizzled poker face has no tells, so we're left puzzling.

The two men begin a strange sort of tutelage, in which Gene prepares tests for John, and imparts little tricks to put others at ease -- like offering a girl a ride, and looking at your watch when she hesitates so she'll think you're in a hurry.

The film is a little fat in the middle, with a few too many subplots and extraneous characters -- such as Audrey (Kristen Hager), a fellow cop from Chicago who turns up just in time to throw a gear in the works. She's merely a damsel waiting for her distress to appear.

The heart of the movie is Gene and John feeling each other out, like two wary wolves unsure of the other's true intent. It's a twist on the old cop-and-killer game that's a cut above, with Scott Glenn portraying a man adept at blending in as either the hunter or the prey.

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