The Integrity of Joseph Chambers review – troubling black comedy of misplaced masculinity
Director Robert Machoian returns to themes of male insecurity in a slight, intriguing film about a man on an ill-fated solo hunting trip
Robert Machoian is the writer-director whose previous film, the brief, tragic The Killing of Two Lovers, made a real impression in just 82 minutes – a tale of jealously and toxic masculinity, set in rural Utah, with the air of some lost film from the 1970s, like something from John Cassavetes. His latest, with the Jack London-ish title of The Integrity of Joseph Chambers, is similarly stark in execution, but also slighter, though this time it comes with flickers of black comedy, a tale of the destructive male ego that reaffirms Machoian as a valuable new chronicler of masculine crisis cinema.
Machoian reunites again with actor Clayne Crawford (also a producer here), who plays insurance salesman Joseph Chambers, an apocalypse-fearing American husband who decides to take himself on a solo hunting trip in preparation against the coming end times he views as inevitable. His wife, Tess, played by Jordana Brewster, is concerned he's becoming too reliant on what he hears on Fox News, but Chambers justifies his position to head into the great outdoors as a means of safeguarding his family's future.
So he borrows a gun from a friend and heads into the woods. But the film takes an unexpected turn when Joseph gets there, sidelining into humour as we watch him navigating the wilderness with a buffoon-ish disregard for his surroundings. He falls asleep. He continually defies the first rule of hunting, making excessive noise and singing loudly and stupidly to himself. In fact, Joseph doesn't seem interested in honing his survival skills at all; we soon realise the exercise is one of pure ego, something to do in order to gain some clout and impress his wife (who'd, ironically, rather just have him home).
Of course, Joseph has a rifle with him, and his behaviour – and general lack of weapon safety – hints early on that we're basically watching a manifestation of inevitability not unlike a Chekov's Gun: The Movie… and so when the rifle does eventually go off, something very bad happens, dragging the movie into Deliverance-like territory, and with it our protagonist's insecurities and foolishness are made even more apparent in the stark light of day. But we also glimpse his vulnerability.
The subtle comedy of the opening stretch moves into temporary horror, then bounces back again, as Machoian continually refuses to allow us to settle into any idea of where this is all actually going. With its long, slow takes and jarring sound design, there's an experimental quality to proceedings: as Joseph's mind wanders in the earlier stretches, so does the soundtrack, at one point even piping in the ambient noise from a baseball game to show us just how far his thoughts are from the task at hand. Later, just as we're accustomed to its blunt realism, the film unexpectedly plays with time and perception.
As Joseph digs a hole, literally and metaphorically, the film echoes the empty bravado exhibited by men of a certain right-wing persuasion – misinformed, desperate to prove themselves in a world they perceive to be betraying their values, but often with nothing valuable to add to it themselves. Machoian at first presents us with a ridiculous man, and the title reads more like a joke at this expense. But integrity is often a question of how to live with one's self, and Machoian finds interesting notes of grey in a slender film that undoubtably lingers.
The Integrity of Joseph Chambers is released on various streaming platforms on 17 April.Where to watch