Here’s a typical dialogue exchange from this unwieldy but wildly hilarious black comedy. Pearl: “Josh seems like a nice man.” Audry: “After he killed your father and sister and all?” Pearl: “People make mistakes.” For his feature-film debut, shot for $200,000 in eleven and a half days, writer-director Hal Hartley has chosen to spin a tall story about love and greed. Seventeen-year-old Audry, played by Adrienne Shelly — a gifted newcomer with a sexy Rosanna Arquette pout — finds herself attracted to Josh (the excellent Robert Burke), the thirtyish mechanic her father (Christopher Cooke) has hired to work in his Long Island garage.
Everybody in town knows that Josh has just been released from prison, though no one but Pearl (Julia McNeal) knows how Josh was implicated in the deaths of two members of her family. Rumors of rape, incest and murder don’t scare Audry. Though she’s convinced the world is heading for nuclear annihilation, Audry puts the moves on the celibate Josh and finds work as a $1000-a-day scantily clad model. Audry’s dad has taught her to run her life like a business.
With artful assists from cinematographer Michael Spiller and composer Jim Coleman, Hartley reveals a familiar world of negotiated relationships and bankrupt values in new, disquieting ways. None of that love-is-the-answer pabulum for Hartley. Even when Audry and Josh finally do acknowledge their feelings, she keeps her eyes peeled for bombs, and he tells her, “I don’t trust anybody.” Hartley’s debut deserves heralding; he combines a rigorous social conscience with the exuberance of fresh comic thinking.