Approaching Arthur Miller's heavily moral tale cinematically, one could fashion a straightforward story that would very possibly leave the audience both stony-faced and weary upon exiting the theater. What director Neal Slavin has done is to imbue this film with striking visuals including occasional, intense dream images that make this an unusual work, easily transcending the realm of the ordinary.
Set in the 40s in Brooklyn, New York, the story concerns a mild-mannered joe, Newman, played by the always-engaging William Macy who works as a human resources officer in a nameless firm. Single, he lives alone with his mother; his lifestyle and mannerisms brand him as something between convention-abiding milquetoast and lonely recluse. There's an ever-present edge to Newman--whenever he smiles, you can't tell if he's trying desperately to feel inside what should accompany the corners of his mouth turning up, or if he is truly pained making the effort.
Into his life comes Gertrude Hart, played brilliantly by Laura Dern. This is very likely one of her best roles; she's flawless here. Sassy, fun-loving, but simultaneously caught up in the ruthless rule of the mob, she both fights and gives into Newman, letting us know that love can happen, but that social convention can easily sway how it goes.
The vicious anti-Semitism on display here is typified well by none other than Meat Loaf--perfectly cast in Fight Club, and here just as effective. As Newman's next door neighbor, he effortlessly vacillates between sham innocence and the crude, fearful hostility of "them"--Jews, blacks, whoever--that those of his ilk live to destroy. Kenneth Welsh does a superb job as Father Crichton, modeled after the real-life Father Coughlin, who preached undying hatred of non-white, non-Christian people, American or not. And David Paymer turns in an equally impressive performance as Finkelstein, the Jewish owner of a newstand on the corner of Newman's block who bears the brunt of the bigotry on display.
The strongly noir atmosphere that pervades the film underlines the dark nature of the story quite well. Similarly, Newman's strange and sometimes horrific dream images let us know that there's more to him than a pained expression. Inside, his doubts scream at him constantly.
This is not a film to run to for an evening of escape, but one instead to see when you're interested in something quite different. And quite telling, given the circumstances of the day.