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When I saw the title of this picture, I held a brief absurd hope it would be a documentary about Joe Chambers, the great jazz drummer whose collaborations with vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson in the 1960s are milestones of progressive composition that influenced Frank Zappa, among others.
But no. As the title makes clear, it’s Joseph Chambers, not “Joe,” and this Joseph Chambers is not a Black musician possessed of forward-facing genius but another rural white guy with problems. He is incarnated by Clayne Crawford, whose cachet in the field of playing rural white guys with problems was certified with 2021’s “The Killing of Two Lovers,” in which he took on the role of a bearded rural white guy with problems who contemplates shooting his wife and her new honey, but thinks better of it, which was supposed to make the audience feel something for him. And for his beard.
After opening with a spooky dolly shot into some woods, this movie, also written and directed by Robert Machoian, shows us our title character, who is shaving OFF his beard. He leaves behind a sculpted swath of lip hair that he tells his wife is his “hunter’s mustache.” In a mess of expository dialogue between him and said wife, Tess (Jordana Brewster), we learn that Joseph, on this particular morning, is hell-bent on a solo hunting trip.
Tess is against the trek. She wants him to stay in bed. She tells him that he does not need to bag an animal because he makes his living selling insurance and that he’s good at it, and thus they can afford groceries. She recollects that while she and Joseph moved to the rural area of Tess’ upbringing (Pell City, Alabama, as we later learn) to raise their children in a “safe” environment, she doesn’t want her and Joseph turning into “end of the world Fox News people.” Which apparently Tess’ folks themselves are. Joseph insists that “If things get worse, we may need to know how to do this stuff.”
He hasn’t done the math that might tell a smarter person that if things DO get worse, the woods are going to be teeming with idiots who think they can kill their own food, and they’ll all end up killing each other, probably.
How prepared is Joseph in his quest to bag a “ten pointer”? Not very. He actually has to borrow a rifle and a pickup truck from one of his buddies, rousing the fellow before sunrise. Once he’s gotten into the “property” on which he is to hunt—apparently, one of his other buddies has a swatch of private hunting land—Joseph climbs into a deer blind and imagines applause. He naps for a while, not on purpose. This is actually a better strategy than he might think, given that one of the cardinal rules of deer hunting is for the hunter to remain quiet and still, for deer are rather skittish creatures. Then he climbs down the deer blind and goes walking through the forest, neglecting to leave a trail of breadcrumbs behind him. He then discovers a truth that my own father needed several trips to the forest to discover, which is that deer hunting is really boring. So soon, he stands in the forest imagining himself a pitcher in the 1991 World Series. No, I didn’t look it up. You can if you like.
So now we’re about a half hour in, and Joseph is pacing on a ledge of earth and loudly singing, “I am the mustache man/king of the mountain, yes I am.” And you may be thinking, wow, it would be nice if something HAPPENED in this movie unless it’s trying to be "Jeanne Dielman" for dorks with rifles. And sure enough, Joseph spots a deer. One unbothered by his singing! And so he gives chase. And just ends up deeper in the woods, without any breadcrumbs behind him. He hears a noise and reels around, and fires in a panic. And soon we learn that with this one shot, he has felled not a deer but a man. What luck. What aim! What horseshit!
Anyway. He miraculously gets back to his pickup truck and weeps and moans and cries and prays to God, and then he looks in the truck bed, and what do you know, there’s a pick AND a shovel. Dead guy problem potentially solved. Only … what if the guy isn’t actually dead? And what if the not-dead guy is a kind of bonafide survivalist who can tell Joseph about the error of his ways? Well, hell, then—we got enough to fill up a whole other hour’s worth of movie, maybe! Actually, not quite. But you get the idea, and maybe the paucity of the idea.
“The Integrity of Joseph Chambers” is a reasonably well-constructed non-hero’s journey that may resonate with you if you’re not already sick of movies set on anatomizing the Crisis of White Masculinity in These United States. This reviewer finds the topic tiresome, tiring, aesthetically unappealing, and banal. Whatever the filmmaker thinks he’s doing, what he’s really doing is trying to find some nobility via a character who’s nothing more or less than an idiot making bad choice after bad choice until their, um, “integrity” compels them to make a difficult and morally correct choice. Hooray for the idiot.
Somebody make a Joe Chambers documentary soon, please. The guy is still alive, only 80 years old. It’s bound to be more than this puling patience-tryer.
Now playing in theaters.
Clayne Crawford as Joe
Jordana Brewster as Tess
Michael Raymond-James as Lone Wolf
Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Police Chief
Colt Crawford as Son
Carl Kennedy as Doug