The filmmakers seem to take the same approach to the way they construct this deceptively simple narrative. For a start, the central character played by Tom E Nicholson is never named and, in the credits, is simply identified as ‘Our Man’. The same is true for many other characters who we only know for what they do rather than who they are – police officer, therapist, postal clerk, burger shop owner – the effect is to compound the isolation that Our Man feels as he moves through his lonely world.
The story, as much as I feel I can reveal, revolves around Our Man, a morbidly obese, socially isolated loner who lives in a crummy little apartment where he has a mind-numbing job calling healthcare customers to verify details on their claim forms. He watches old black and white westerns on the television, sometimes whilst masturbating to porn on his laptop. His interaction with the world is largely functional – a trip to the post office, lunch at a burger joint, appointments with his therapist – all of which involve some level of anger and resentment against the world. And then, one day, he receives a package that was meant to be delivered to the post box next to his. Nevertheless, he opens it and what he finds inside simultaneously triggers painful memories of his own family life, and a series of extreme actions that result from a decision to take matters into his own hands.
As a result of the actions he takes, he meets Tilly (Danika Golombek) a young woman with whom he forms a highly unlikely and spikey relationship that slowly reveals deeply hidden sides of both characters. The development of their relationship is finely plotted and deftly handled and forms the most compelling part of the film. The performances by both actors are beautifully underplayed and understated in a way that makes their story both ordinary and extraordinary in the same breath. You simply can’t take your eyes off them.
The title of the film comes from a nineteenth century slave spiritual. It’s a song about Moses and the deliverance of the Israelites from the oppression of the Pharaohs. It also has allusions to Christian Baptism and, for some, contains a coded message to those slaves who were escaping along the so-called Underground Railroad; the secret routes and safe places that delivered many from slavery to the free states in America. One lyric in the song tells us that God’s gonna trouble the waters, a reference to an angel that stirs up the calm waters of the Pool of Siloam and, as a result, releases healing powers to those who venture in. It’s a subtle connection, but in the context of the film, resonates in unexpected ways with the ideas of redemption and salvation and deliverance from the forms of oppression that pervades Our Man’s life.
The hallmark of this film is the very mundane and ordinary way in which the story unfolds and in how these two characters relate to each other. I hasten to add that their circumstances are anything but mundane; but it’s the use of the banal in the playing out of their story through those circumstances that makes this film so compelling.
I’d love to tell you more about the story of this film, but that would be to steal away the impact of its unfolding. Suffice to say it’s a sharply written and confidently directed film with two powerful performances at its heart, well supported by a cast of other players who provide just the right balance of engagement and distance to provide us with an understanding of the way Our Man is in the world. It’s a great example of how indie films so often get it right in allowing the focus to be on story and performance and fine filmmaking in order to remind us that as entertaining as big budgets and CGI can be, they never a substitute for the things that really matter in a human-scale story.