Movies becoming timely is almost always an accident. They’re made months in advance and can never reliably predict the future they will enter when released. The right match of content and happenstance can elevate a film’s mystique, even that of a tiny little indie that normally wouldn’t carry much of one at all. The award-winning Working Man, filmed in and around Chicago last year, debuts on VOD services today to a sheltered public facing jobless claims that topped 30 million in two short quarantined months. The distinctive part about this movie is that it displays a sense of workplace fulfillment that would still work if that bellwether statistic was zero. Timeliness only makes it better.
Working Man presents a slice-of-life story surrounding a tight-knit community of workers beset by the closure of their once-busy factory. The veteran workers speak of a hey-day when the fictional New Liberty Plastics used to employ 500+ people and built the sturdy success of the surrounding community. Ask any Grain Belt or Rust Belt community, and they have their own (or several) New Liberty Plastics equivalents where foreign diversification or automation has replaced people and production. The slow decline of factory industries seen here is very real.
The film arrives at the last half-day where the few dozen rabble remaining sadly collect their final paychecks. An envelope and a feigned handshake are the only thanks they get stepping off this line and into the unemployment one. The longest-tenured floor employee and last one to leave is Allery Parkes, played by professional TV/movie villain Peter Gerety. Quiet to no end on the outside, you wonder how hard his disappointment is kicking and screaming on the inside.
Allery is a creature of habit who passed on retirement years before and emotionally depends on the normalcy of a work routine, from his usual lunch gear to his short walking commute to and from the factory. His wife Iola (the ever-glowing Oscar nominee Talia Shire) is eager to see him relax into retirement, but Allery is unsettled and uncomfortable to the point where he begins going back to the factory by himself every day even after the shutdown.
Allery doesn’t go there to mope or to protest. He goes there to continue his comforts and to clean the place up. He’s buying his own supplies and scrubbing grit and grime. You see that “work” for him is more than a source of means. There’s a different worth, so to speak, to work for this man. It is one of many points of pride in his sense of diligence and dedication. These are character traits we don’t often see portrayed in movies about workplaces where louder and more argumentative characters move the needle. It is flat-out empowering and pleasant to see a veteran old soul employee who is not a trope of the conservative and irascible complainer.
Allery’s neighbors and former co-workers, led by the more ardent mouthpiece Walter (Billy Brown of How to Get Away with Murder), catch wind of what Allery is up to. They admire his efforts and begin to join him rather than chastise him as a senile senior. What starts as shared occupation turns into solidarity and a mini-movement that challenges corporate aims and bolsters contagious hope.
With a different slant or pace, a movie like Working Man would land uncomfortably closer to kumbaya whimsy. Victories would be assured and cheers would be telegraphed on command through the editing of Rocky Oscar winner Richard Halsey working alongside his daughter Morgan. That’s not the case here whatsoever. Patience is paramount. Debuting feature writer/director Robert Jury constructs strengths of wisdom and honesty in each collective cog of this narrative machine. Reality is not bent to suit or save all happiness. Losses are real and the characters emerging as leaders or sources of esteem have tangible flaws that formulate both their limits and their passions.
All work is honorable if you do it right. This mantra can encapsulate the crew who made Working Man, the characters on-screen, and the performers who portray them. The inspired have created the inspiring. You root not for heroics but for satisfaction of the efforts shown. Mix in the lucky fate of timely poignancy and those efforts have become rewarded in the form of Best Narrative Feature Film laurels from the Kansas City International Film Festival and SCAD Savannah Film Festival.
The person who exemplifies that lesson the most is Peter Gerety as Allery. One of the greatest perks of the independent film scene is the special opportunities to see a long-time character actor get a lead part and run with it. Their bigger and more stock work keeps them employed and present, but it’s in places like this where you truly realize their full talent. If all you’ve ever seen of Gerety is his “hey, I know that guy” animated and nonchalant heavies in the likes of Ray Donovan, Flight, Charlie Wilson’s War, The Wire, and dozens more, you (and this very writer) have overlooked a true master.
Gerety, who turns 80 this month, brings a remarkable level of affecting introvertedness to this damaged leading role. Contrary to his career gilded by a brand of explosive boisterousness, the actor uses massive presence and body language to fill the drama of Working Man. Often alone with his thoughts and sorrow, Gerety gives Allery a shuffling gait, and even a wobble of his agape jaw, that never surges into caricature. Restraint and resonance like that is a hearty treat and a revelation all its own.