Clayne Crawford shines as a father grappling with his insecurities

The Integrity of Joseph Chambers is tense and terse thriller about a man reckoning with his place in the world. Joseph Chambers (Clayne Crawford) is a family man living in an unnamed rural area. He sells insurance and he’s really good at it. He has a loving wife and healthy children. By any measure, he appears to be successful. But there’s something brewing inside the man everyone calls Joe. Whatever is lurking underneath the family man demeanor is ready to come to the fore. Joe has enough self-awareness to recognize this and he’s preparing for some made up scenario in his head, one where his mettle as a father, a husband, a provider, as a capital-M Man will be put to the test. But the thing about personal reckonings is that you don’t get to control how and when they will manifest. The only thing you can control is how you handle it. With that, writer-director Robert Machoian sends Joe off for a day in the woods to see what man, nature, and God has in store for him.

From the moment we meet Joe it’s clear that he’s unsettled about himself. He’s shaving and whispering a line about “hell’s coming for dinner” over in over, like an actor running lines. He cuts his beard down to a solid Fu Manchu moustache, something his wife, Tess (Jordana Brewster) immediately clocks as out of the ordinary. Joe’s got it in his head that he’s not ready in the event society collapses and he’s called upon to be the ultimate provider. To rectify this, Joe’s plan is to head to the woods for the day where he’ll be by himself and he’s going to bag himself a buck. Man and nature. Joe just needs to stop and borrow a friend’s truck and gun to round out this new persona he’s trying to put on.

Machoian’s script is sparse and almost completely free of exposition, so it puts viewers in an interesting position. We don’t know if Joe is suffering from some sort of mental issue, a mid-life crisis, or something else. Given the little we can glean from how the other characters (and Joe himself) view him, it seems like he’s dealing with some insecurity about his perceived masculinity (or lack thereof). It could be all those things, or it could be none of it. Crawford plays it all with a fragile stoicism. Joe’s trying to keep it all together, but the question of whether that is for his own benefit or everyone else’s looms large. Machoian gives Joe a few moments of peace, unencumbered by the expectations of himself and everyone else. Joe’s postures slackens and he throws rocks, pretending it’s the bottom of the ninth and he’s on the mound. Another moment finds him loudly singing and listening to the echo of his voice. These scenes are brief, but Crawford conveys so much. It helps fill out the picture of who Joe is and sets viewers up for what’s to come.

When Joe’s reckoning arrives, there’s nothing in the world that can prepare Joe for it. I won’t spoil what happens, but you can probably imagine the kind of trouble that might befall someone who is inexperienced with guns and hunting. Joe went into the woods to find out what kind of man he is and certainly comes out with his answer.

On their previous collaboration, 2020’s The Killing of Two Lovers, Machoian and Crawford showed a unique chemistry, and that carries over to The Integrity of Joseph Chambers. Machoian’s directorial style favors long, unbroken shots where his actors have time to work through an array of emotions. Crawford shows great comfort in these shots, patiently working through whatever Joe is dealing with in the current moment. It feels like you can see the wheels turning in Joe’s head in a way that feels authentic and not like actorly showiness. The combined patience of the direction and performance adds to the tension of plot, heightening an already fraught atmosphere.

As the film reaches its conclusion, I found myself at a loss for words. I tried jotting notes down, but I couldn’t find the right words to express how I felt. As the film’s title implies, Joe’s integrity is put to the ultimate test. The movie began with him unsure of who he is and thinking he can turn himself into a different kind of man. It ends with him understanding the kind of man that he is and will always be. I can’t tell which is worse.

The Integrity of Joseph Chambers is available in theaters and on VOD starting February 17th

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