Actor and director Alex Karpovsky has been a fixture in the past few years in low-budget American indies, many of which have fallen under the rubric (though I hate the term) of "mumblecore." In many of these films, both directed by himself and by others, he is an affable and sardonic presence, who has drawn comparisons in many quarters to Woody Allen. Often in the characters he plays, a darker undercurrent is revealed that lies underneath the friendly façade presented to the world. Up until now, at least in what I have seen so far of his work, this all existed more or less solidly in the realm of comedy. However, Rubberneck, his latest film as director and lead actor, takes him into very different territory; it is a moody and atmospheric piece, full of creeping dread, an emotional reflection of its tortured protagonist. It is essentially a stalker tale, in the mode of such films as Psycho and Peeping Tom; as a result, the narrative trajectory goes pretty much the way one would expect once the obsessive nature of its main character becomes fully established. But as the cliché goes, it's about the journey, not the destination, and Karpovsky delivers a compelling and skillfully rendered trip through his character's trauma-scarred psyche.
Paul Harris (Karpovsky), Rubberneck's central character, is a scientist at a research laboratory in suburban Boston, a starkly antiseptic environment that fits the mask of logicality and normalcy that Paul wears, and which gradually slips away as the film progresses. This unmasking is set into motion in the aftermath of one weekend Paul spends having a sexual tryst with his co-worker Danielle (Jaime Ray Newman). Danielle considers this a one-time thing, to the dismay of Paul, who eight months later, is still unable to let go, and spends his days in tortured awkwardness at still being in Danielle's presence daily at work. Even though he applies for work at other labs, he can't quite bring himself to leave his job, perhaps in the hope of rekindling, or rather, beginning a relationship with Danielle. His only solace during his longing is the time he spends with his sister Linda (Amanda Good Hennessey) and her son, as well as satisfying his sexual desires with Kathy (Dakota Shepard), a paid escort he frequents. Whatever faint hopes Paul harbors of getting anywhere with Danielle are dashed when she begins seeing Chris (Dennis Staroselsky), a new employee at the lab. This unleashes the desperation, anger, and violent impulses that Paul heretofore has very carefully hidden from others, leading to extreme and irreversible consequences.
Rubberneck, written by Karpovsky and Garth Donovan, impresses less with the explanations behind Paul's pathologies than it does with the use of its suburban settings and eerily stark interiors that surround the protagonist and immerse the viewers fully in his headspace. Also impressive is Karpovsky's performance, rendering with chilly intensity this withdrawn and often opaque character who in many scenes in the film is silently lurking and watching. Incidentally, this year's festival offers viewers a chance to get a sense of Karpovsky's range as an actor, and to compare his work in Rubberneck with his more comedic role in Supporting Characters (which I also highly recommend). Both films mark the continuing emergence of a remarkable talent both in front of and behind the camera.
Rubberneck screens April 23, 9pm at AMC Loews Village 7 and April 28, 2:30pm at Clearview Cinemas Chelsea. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit the Tribeca Film Festival website.