On Chicago’s west, south, and even north side. Even more so in downstate Illinois and on its northern-Wisconsin border. Abandoned steel-framed brick buildings, covered by shuttered windows, rising above the quaint planes—or fading into the landscape of urban decay—are scattered and empty. They once housed workers, notches on the nation’s rust belt. But Robert Jury’s debut Working Man is more than a midwest drama of disused industry. Instead, it’s a compelling film whose heart operates in stoic rhythm by portraying broken people dissembling their internalized pain.
On initial glance, Allery’s agony begins with the closure of the town’s plastic factory. The film’s protagonist, he’s adrift and bored; a mood painted too by Piero Basso’s greyish-blue cinematography. Meanwhile, his wife Iola (Talia Shire) feels a similar purposelessness, but for an entirely different reason.
Even so, Allery (Peter Gerety, Ray Donovan) develops a new routine. Every morning he wakes and showers at 6:00am, packs his lunch pail and thermo and heads to work. His neighbors and former-coworkers worryingly believe him an old fool, tottering to the idle factory. Only Walter (Billy Brown, How to Get Away With Murder)—a quiet new transplant to the small town—sees a kindred spirit in this company man. He offers to help. Working alongside the stoic old hand, this odd couple cull pleasure from their blue collar ethos. Soon, they convince others in the town that if they’d only return to work and fulfill the plant’s “existing” orders, then the corporate brass will reopen the factory.
It’s a golden dream turned to rust belt. Without spoiling the drama’s later twist, Working Man quietly explores the trauma that haunts these characters. Especially Walter and Allery. Both turn toward escapism rather than confronting what ails them, hurting others in the process. Moreover, like the town itself, their existence rides heavily on completing “an honest day’s work.”
In his narrative, Jury blurs the line between municipal pride and capitalist-molded purpose. This welding is partly intentional. Many industries made these blue collar occupations more than jobs. They demanded loyalty; instilling themselves into the fabric of the community and distorting local identity and personal work ethic as a reflection of the company. Thereby, manufacturing a tension between an individual’s productivity and their spiritual usefulness.
But work as an escapist tool, can only hide what really ails Allery and Walter for so long. It’s a truth Iola pushes to uncover, forcing her husband to melt his stoic facade and live for another reason other than a job. Which, in turn, causes Allery to confront Walter’s emotional baggage as well. In every moment of this drama Gerety, Shire, and Brown all deliver sharp internalized performances.
If Jury misses anything in his debut, it’s the dimension of race in Working Man. There are several hints of such: from Iola initially distrusting Walter because of his beard, to Walter installing Allery as the face of the town’s rebellion for fear they won’t listen to an outsider, to the character of Walter bordering on the “magical negro” trope. Instead, Jury opts out of those weeds. He knows what he doesn’t know. That’s probably for the best. Even so, Working Man is a confident expression of moving on, opening up, and learning to live again.