Update fall 2018: Been a few years since I last saw this before the current viewing, but After Hours remains truly unstable, and clearly too brutally crazed to be labeled a psychoanalytic “portrait” of Scorsese, with all the easily-contained clarity and visibility the notion of a portrait implies. After Hours is much more of a working-through than it is a legible work of art; it’s the rattled consciousness of a director obviously exposing himself to nervous tendons in search of transcending them, and it’s gloriously untamed.
Like his previous film King of Comedy, 1985’s After Hours is something of an unheralded masterpiece from director Martin Scorsese. It’s certainly non-traditional, being rather aimless and lacking a conventional narrative or even character development. But it’s also obsessive, dangerous, playful, worrisome, and energetic in a way that veers close to satanic. It’s the kind of open-ended film that people often struggle to understand, and others say is only for the enlightened. My opinion – forget about understanding and just let it wash over you and take you along for the ride. I’m not sure even Scorsese really understands what happens to his main character here, but it undeniably meant something to him, and it undeniably affects us. This is not a film to intellectualize – intellectualizing is what the human mind tells us to do to make sense of event in narrative format, and After Hours is intentionally anti-narrative. While we may want to look at the film in terms of cause and effect, it has other things in mind. It captures like few films the pure chaotic senselessness of human life, how little control we have over our fates, and how narrative cohesiveness is a violent lie we force upon sensory experience so that we can find sense in things which were never meant to be sensical.
Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) leads a rather ho-hum life as a word processor until he meets Mary Franklin (Rosanna Arquette) in a café. It’s a pleasant conversation that ends soon enough, but they share similar interests and Paul’s life is so boring that he decides to risk his night and follow up with her. Upon venturing to her apartment, he discovers things are a bit off when he comes to see she may be severely disfigured on her torso and arms. He leaves, immaturely, before getting in even worse trouble. Eventually he finds his way back to the apartment and discovers that she in fact isn’t disfigured, but may have other problems. Confused and unsure of himself, Paul contemplates a weird night as he grows increasingly perturbed and anxious to return home. Events conspire to keep him from doing that as the night goes on.
Writing anymore of the narrative, and perhaps writing what I have already written, would be too much. All you really need to know is that Paul has a wild and crazy night. But if most “wild and crazy night” movies are about the initial thrill of reckless abandon and the eventual struggle to gain control over it, this one gives you reckless abandon and then condemns and mocks any attempt to contain or control it. This is a malevolent abandon, a whirlwind of destruction placed in the kind of eerie New York nighttime that should form the basis of a horror movie but which is here played for black comedy. To name-drop another popular mid-’80s film with a similar theme treated more genially, it approximates a Ferris Bueller’s Day Off from hell. And at the center of it all is the ultimate guinea pig in Paul who defies the conception of main character agency and serves as the world’s, and Scorsese’s, punching bag. Curiously, and to this extent, it is also one of Scorsese’s most perturbed poison-pen odes to the power of the city he loves, with a New York as a force of pure, primal power as mysterious as it is ragged. Here, it can do whatever it wants, owes nothing to no person, and answers to no sense of logic except its own.
Indeed, the film does play like a horror movie more often than not – it’s undeniably spooky at times, but we’re not really sure why. There’s nothing stalking Paul, and if it’s all in his head the film doesn’t struggle to deal with these themes. It’s not a paranoia thriller, per-se, but it’s undeniably paranoid, and it’s undeniably thrilling. The whole film takes him out of the frying pan and into the fire, stewed around as if by the devil’s spoon. We never get an explanation, and that’s the point. This is the raving mind of a madman, not Paul, but scriptwriter Joseph Minion filtered through a then angry and obsessively reckless Martin Scorsese. If anything, it approximates that classic Looney Tunes bit of post-structuralist madcap self-destruction, “Duck Amuck”, where an unseen animator wreaks havoc upon Daffy Duck. Here the animator is Scorsese, and this is him letting his hair (eyebrows?) out and having a little fun.
The film’s off-the-cuff nature is also befitting its production schedule. When this film was made, it was something of a time-pass for Scorsese who had been aiming to direct his dream project The Last Temptation of Christ. He was well into production on that film when it was temporarily axed by the studio which had until then assured him it would get made. He was no doubt angry and even perhaps paranoid himself, and he perhaps had no choice but to get to work on a movie to tear through his creative frustrations. It’s no wonder he picked a film about an unseen force seemingly driving a character to ruin over the course of a night, and the character’s futile attempts to battle that larger-than-life force. For this reason, it comes to us like a film out of the future, put together by a man obsessed and impassioned and worried, built up with raw passion and coming together through recklessly pure filmmaking.
To this extent, Scorsese is left to his visual tricks – and he gives them to us, like mad scientist experiments, with cheerful aplomb. The most telling are the ones where he’s fooling with us – close-ups of nothing for no real reason, but which we assume must mean something because of course close-ups mean something. It’s as if he’s channeling his subversive edge into a razor knife and cutting directly into the celluloid. If a studio will put his project on hold, then his revenge is to give them this: a film to scratch heads, made on the cheap and thus not worth not putting out because it can bear the Scorsese name and thus will make some money back, but which amounts to nothing but pure affect and which plays with its audiences heads. This is an intentionally unmarketable film, perhaps’ Scorsese’s most-so ever, which has its fun with film logic and gets out before we can notice. After Hours is a difficult film to describe in detail in this regard because it is all about its overall feeling – cynical, for one, and all those other words I used at the beginning, for another. It doesn’t give us much to go on, but if you let it win you over, it’s just about everything we need. More than any other Scorsese film, this is the director raisin’ hell and damn proud of it.