The feature debut from writer/director Robert Jury asks us to consider whether it’s a good or bad thing when your job becomes your life. And when your job is taken away from you, what is left of life? Working Man tells the story of Allery Parkes (the great character actor Peter Gerety), a withdrawn, largely silent man who is eligible for retirement from his factory job in a plastics plant but has chosen not to leave for whatever reason. He’s not alone in this world—he has a wife, Iola (Talia Shire, of the Rocky and Godfather films), who sees him off in the morning and feeds him dinner when he comes home, after which he takes a long walk in the night, only to return home and go directly to bed. It’s a lonely routine that Iola seems to tolerate more than approve of, and it underscores that there is something between them that is not being discussed.
With little notice, the plant closes, leaving Allery and his co-workers (most of whom are also his neighbors) various combinations of confused, angry, and concerned about the future. And if Allery was shut down before, he becomes practically catatonic after being laid off. In an almost sleepwalking state, he spends the next few days still getting up, getting dressed, making a lunch, and heading to the factory, sneaking into the building, thinking that he’ll just keep doing what he’s been doing for decades. But with no power in the building, Allery decides to dedicate his time to cleaning his work station and other equipment. When anyone questions what he’s doing, he simply (and defiantly) explains that he’s just doing his job.
When Walter (Billy Brown), one of his neighbors and a relatively new arrival to the community and factory, decides to investigate Allery’s behavior, he’s inspired to help him out, even managing to get the power turned back on. Eventually, the two use the raw materials still on the premises to keep producing whatever it was the factory makes. After a few phone calls, Walter even gets the company’s clients to agree to buy what they are able to produce—and pay them for their effort. Before long, Allery’s quiet, solitary determination becomes a motivating factor in getting all of the old factory workers to come back—in defiance of their former bosses—to spend about a week finishing out whatever jobs they can.
Shot in and around the Chicago area and using a supporting cast of local talent, Working Man is a deceptively simple story about the power of having a purpose in this world, even if that purpose is working for someone else. But it also clearly illustrates how fragile this blue-collar eco-system can be. There are a few elements to this story, including a great tragedy in Allery’s past and Walter’s backstory, that add very specific twists I perhaps wasn’t expecting. I’m not sure knowing these pieces of their lives makes the film any better or deeper, but they do enrich the characters to the point where they are less two-dimensional. There are also moments when the film drifts a bit too much into being a message movie, but even that doesn’t lessen its authenticity or dramatic impact.
Watching two magnificent acting veterans like Gerety and Shire is a genuine treat, and the way they communicate with each other and the audience, frequently without words, is beyond impressive, bordering on inspirational. I think the film wants to be something of a rallying cry in support of those working folks who are too frequently minimized and squeezed out at the whim of a corporation. But it works far better as a deeply personal, introspective look at a man who is nearly dead inside, attempting to hide from the things in his life that cause him more pain than he can handle. To him, his work is his final lifeline, and if he gives up on that, he’s a goner. There’s a bit of a corny ending to Working Man, but nothing so unforgivable that is tarnishes the incredible work from the performers or filmmaker Jury; I’m very interested to see what he comes up with next.
The film is available on VOD beginning today.
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