Eight years before Tom Noonan directed his first movie, What Happened Was…, he played the part of a meticulous serial killer in Manhunter, the first attempt at bringing Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter novels to the screen. There’s something of a similarity between the obsessive care Manhunter’s Francis Dollarhyde takes in planning and staging a grisly murder, and the scene in Noonan’s movie where Jackie (Karen Sillas) nervously preps her apartment for a date with a co-worker, sprinting across the frame and then pausing for what feels like an eternity to stare at her half-naked body in a dimly lit mirror, trying on different tops with the uncertain hint of a let’s-do-this smile. Over the course of a meal and its awkward aftermath, plenty of blood is spilled, though none of it literal. But the morbid undertones aren’t accidental. Adapting his own play, Noonan, who also appears opposite Sillias as Michael, the film’s only other role, shapes mood with the precision of a great horror director. The demons are more frightening because they never show their faces.
Noonan has only released two movies as a director: What Happened Was… in 1994 and The Wife the following year. (He was sufficiently dissatisfied with a third, Wang Dang, that he opted to shelve it.) But those two films are enough to demonstrate that he could have been a major figure, or even that he was one. Unfortunately, there’s a good reason Noonan’s movies aren’t out on DVD: The transfers currently available for digital rental and purchase, and streaming on Hulu, are passable at best; in the case of What Happened Was…, it’s like watching through a pan of dirty water. But the film itself is so strong that the unsightly presentation can’t obscure its power, and after a while, the dingy look starts to feel of a piece.
In an interview conducted between the two movies, Noonan explained why dinner-table discomfort plays a central role in both:
My father was this very quiet, intimidating person who had a very bitter sense of humor. He would send all the kids from the table crying whenever he felt like it, by saying one thing… About 15 years ago, I used to get sick to my stomach every day at about 5 o’clock. I was in therapy at the time, and I couldn’t figure out why at 5:30 I would get nauseous, and I started thinking that eating dinner with my family was always this incredibly anxious time, exciting too, but very anxiety-producing. And it’s not by accident that the things I’ve done as movies have a dinner as their central event.
Apart from Jan Svankmajer, no director mines as much unease from the simple act of eating. As Jackie and Michael sit across the table in What Happened Was…, every swallow, every squishy crunch of teeth on lettuce, registers as a biological insult; perhaps it’s fortunate we can’t more clearly see the reheated seafood she’s serving, since at this resolution, it looks like wallpaper paste. (“Some words embarrass you,” Michael says, “like ‘ritzy’ or ‘scallops.’”) The movie never lets them forget that, even as they try to put their best selves forward, they’re nothing but lumps of mottled flesh, rotting and oozing and falling apart. Noonan and Sillas, who deftly navigate the script’s emotional switchbacks, seem quietly heroic, or maybe quixotic, in their attempts to escape their baked-in vulnerabilities, but the odds are never on their side.
As uncomfortable as their conversations can be, Noonan never lapses into the glib sadism of Neil LaBute—or, for that matter, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, to which The Wife is a distant cousin. The characters hurt each other, sometimes out of malice, but mostly out of carelessness or failures of empathy. What Happened Was… takes place in an open-plan apartment high above Manhattan, and the camera often gazes out the windows at the lives of Jackie’s neighbors, like a melancholy relative of Jacques Tati’s Play Time. Sound drifts through the walls, denying privacy when it’s needed most, but also serving as a reminder that they’re not alone—or if they are, it’s in that peculiar metropolitan way of being isolated in a crowd.
The foursome in The Wife really is alone, stuck in a snowbound house somewhere out in the country. Noonan and Julie Hagerty play Jack and Rita, married psychotherapists who run a sort of New Age encounter group out in the woods; Wallace Shawn and Karen Young co-star as Cosmo and Arlie, a couple who turn their stalled car into an unwanted dinner invitation. As the unappointed master of ceremonies, Noonan (here with a graying goatee and a smug half-grin) plays his character much as he described his father: sly, withholding, and coyly malicious, winding the others up and watching them fight. The movie’s stab at therapists who (surprise!) turn out to be as damaged and deceitful as the people they’re supposedly helping is as predictable as its tensions-simmer-then-explode structure, but its formal audacity is engrossing. Noonan splits his foursome into pairs and keeps tabs on their parallel conversations, staging them in adjoining rooms on separate floors connected by rising crane shots. Subtle tweaks in sound mixing make sure the important parts of one exchange or another don’t get overwhelmed, but often he lets each twosome go on its own path, leaving his audience to favor one ear over the other. It’s disorienting, as it’s mean to be, but not chaotic, and it works to establish that the emotional dynamics in play don’t go into deep-freeze the instant the camera leaves the room.
As the therapists’ happy, though by no means cured, patient, Cosmo acts like a member of a secret society to which his newly acquired wife is barred entry. But Arlie barrels through with amicable hostility, insisting that leaving would be rude even as the rising tensions suggest the necessity of escape. There’s a magnificent scene, scored to R.E.M.’s “Low,” where she confronts Cosmo, and their hosts, with their own hypocrisy, using her body to disrupt their “cosmic free-for-all.” The Wife doesn’t have the coiled intensity of What Happened Was…, and Noonan seems far less empathetic with these four characters than the previous film’s two, but it’s enough to spark a wish that he’d kept making films, and to inspire viewers to be glad for the ones he did make.