With all the blockbusters coming and going at local theaters, you might want to take a break from CGI, destruction, and violence and try an emotionally gratifying, intellectually rewarding film that explores issues unseen in the “big” movies. Handsome Harry, directed by Bette Gordon, opening in selected theaters April 16, is such a film.
Handsome Harry boasts a cast of familiar names unafraid of independent cinema, including Jamey Sheridan (as Harry), Steve Buscemi, Aidian Quinn, John Savage, Campbell Scott, and Karen Young. All of these actors deliver strong, true performances in this story of love, betrayal, and regret. Handsome Harry is accompanied by a lush jazz score, composed by Anton Sanko and Jamaane Smith, that enriches the storytelling.
Tommy Kelley (Steve Buscemi) is dying; he summons Harry Sweeney (Jamey Sheridan) to his deathbed to ask (demand) a favor. Thirty-two years ago, Harry, Tommy, and several of their crewmates on the Forrestal administered a severe beating to another sailor, David Kagan (Campbell Scott). Tommy is afraid he will go to hell unless he apologizes to Kagan, but Kagan will not accept his call.
Harry reluctantly visits Tommy in the hospital, and—following Tommy’s death—he is on the road, visiting all the sailors involved in that long ago incident, and finally attempting to see Kagan. His memory of the event is vague (all of the attackers were wasted at the time), and he is unsure of the part he played in this homophobic outrage.
Threaded through the tale of Harry’s quest are flashbacks to the attack, as well as to happy memories preceding it. His reunion with each of his old friends reveals that they were all affected by the incident, and its negative impact still haunts them. Each found his own way of coping, from complete denial to extreme homophobia to God. None of them has found a way of forgiving himself.
Themes of love, loss, guilt, betrayal, uncertainty, and regret are skillfully interwoven throughout Handsome Harry. The audience is involved from the start, perhaps because Harry is a sympathetic character, someone looking into the past, attempting to find what he missed.
Harry’s recent knowledge, combined with his memories, provides him with a troubling recollection of what happened all those years ago. When Harry and Kagan finally meet again, hope and despair clash. The melancholy ending is an affective close to a moving story.
Handsome Harry is not a film for people who need Hollywood endings and loose ends to be tied. It is a study of how the past is incorporated into the present. Everything will not turn out well for everyone, some things won’t change at all, but the audience is left with much to ponder. And appreciate.