It is difficult to imagine a more timely film than Focus; certainly, its message about intolerance resonates in a post-September 11 world in ways the filmmakers never anticipated. Adapted from Arthur Miller’s little-known 1945 novel of the same title, Focus looks at what happens to a society when basically decent people do not stand up in the face of prejudice and ignorance. Written when America was fighting fascism abroad but blind to its own homegrown racism and anti-Semitism, the book should be required reading in every high school in the country. Instead, it was out of print for years and reissued only last month to coincide with the film’s release.
In perhaps his finest performance, William H. Macy portrays Lawrence Newman, an unassuming milquetoast who still lives with his mother and goes to great lengths to avoid calling attention to himself; his entire life is predicated upon trying to conform to the world around him. In 1940s Brooklyn, that means denigrating Jews and actively trying to keep them out of the neighborhood. Troubled by what he sees but unwilling to appear different, Lawrence goes along with the prevailing attitude.
That attitude is shared by his employers. One applicant he turns away in his capacity as personnel manager at a mid-size corporation is Gertrude Hart (Laura Dern), a leggy, outgoing blonde who, the film insists, looks Jewish. Immediately sizing up the reason for her rejection, she bitterly scolds him, “I was born Episcopalian, but you are what you look like.” Lawrence learns the truth of that observation when he buys eyeglasses that give him a Jewish appearance, and suddenly he is out of a job and unable to get another one. The harassment grows worse when Lawrence and Gertrude marry: Presumed to be Jews by those around them, they find themselves increasingly isolated and more and more endangered.
One of the movie’s strengths is that it’s very consciously structured in a way that keeps Lawrence and Gertrude’s religious and ethnic identity tantalizingly unclear. We keep wondering whether they’re Jewish after all, when the whole point of the story, of course, is that the question should be completely irrelevant.
No one plays a scared rabbit better than Macy, whose sad but endearing Charlie Brown smile makes us care about him despite our disappointment in him. Dern achieves just the right mix of floozy sexiness, uninhibited brassiness, intelligence, and vulnerability. Also good are Meat Loaf Aday as Lawrence’s bullying neighbor, a leader in the anti-Semitic Union Crusaders; David Paymer, who lends dignity and conviction to a part that easily could have been treacly; and Kay Hewtrey in the small role of Lawrence’s very matter-of-fact, unexpectedly likable mother.
First-time director Neal Slavin’s background as a still photographer and commercial artist is evident in the film’s assured visual style. Working in close collaboration with Spanish-born cinematographer Juan Ruiz-Anchiacutea, he presents a world of vivid but bland color and almost surreal crispness (think David Lynch, but without the creepiness). The movie opens in a swirl of greens and yellows, as unfocused patches of color fly across the screen. Fuzzy, distorted images begin to appear, and a whirling carousel (a recurring motif throughout the film) takes shape before our eyes. Mark Adler’s musical score — at times reminiscent of Aaron Copland; at others, Bernard Herrmann — adds greatly to the ambiance.
Although the predominant impression is one of color, light and shadow figure prominently within shots, aided by the filmmakers’ mastery of composition and framing. Each room in the Newmans’ neat, airy house is a different color: pale green walls here, an inviting shade of yellow there, a red-and-white-checkered kitchen floor. Expansive doorways and freestanding walls give the impression of openness. The outside world is all blue skies and sunshine. Bright, clean, and crisply shot, this Brooklyn could be the perfect American town, an impression in deliberate contrast to the dark hatreds that flow just beneath the surface.
Yes, the movie is obvious at times, banging you over the head with its message, and the use of shadows on a wall can seem overly broad. But these are small complaints when compared to the film’s many strengths, which are even more apparent on a second viewing, when the sympathy between the movie’s visual style and dramatic content is even more keenly appreciated. Certainly its message seems particularly relevant at a time when Muslims and Arab-Americans find themselves the object of so much mistrust and hatred. Indeed, the film brings to mind the words of German theologian Martin Niemöller: “In Germany they came first for the communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.”