After Hours (1985)

Martin Scorsese | 1hr 37min

There is a version of After Hours which might play out more as a straight farce or screwball comedy, as we follow corporate yuppie Paul Hackett along a twisted journey through a bad night that only keeps getting worse. He has two simple objectives in mind: get home, and, if he can find the time for it, get laid. He wanders through the apartments, clubs, and streets of New York, ingratiating himself with strangers who might offer him solutions to one or both of his goals, though oftentimes when we get our hopes up, they are quickly dashed by some extraordinary turn of events, each one more utterly absurd than the last. After Hours is truly Kafkaesque down to the very fabric of its premise, dragging us through an oppressive nightmare that erodes our faith in a chaotic universe that only ever cooperates with itself at the worst possible times.

A chaotic labyrinth with seemingly no physical destination in sight.

But Martin Scorsese’s pointed critique is not aimed at some metaphysical force that exists entirely beyond the control of humans. This trap which Paul has worked himself into is one devised by industrial America, setting up an inefficient system that rejects nuanced judgement in favour of clumsy, automated assumptions. Of course, much of After Hours takes place outside the sterile offices where such bureaucracies are created, but beyond those walls, corporate culture continues to shape urban life in its own awful likeness. It is omnipresent and inescapable, even when the lights are turned off and everybody has left the building. For Paul, there is no existence outside work – there is simply eight hours of soul-sucking fatigue, and then another sixteen hours of the same thing.

As such, it isn’t the setting of New York that feels like its own character so much as it is the society, made up of artists, bartenders, businessmen, cab drivers, and burglars. The extent to which coincidences underlie each of Paul’s interactions with these people is rigidly formal in its development, as unrelated misunderstandings and minor accidents from early on later interweave in a series of increasingly unlucky diversions, to the point that it isn’t just the whims of fate holding Paul back from getting home, but the active efforts of an angry mob operating under the misguided belief that he is a criminal who must be brought to justice. Even as After Hours traverses dark territory including suicide and drugs, Scorsese’s screenplay remains wickedly funny, particularly as Paul grows self-aware of his own ridiculous situation, and at one point, after witnessing an entirely unrelated murder, bleakly muses:

“I’ll probably get blamed for that.”

A murder entirely unrelated to anything else in this film, but it does paint out New York as a city of corruption and sin lurking beneath images of clean, corporate offices.

Early on a horrific plaster sculpture evoking Edvard Munch’s painting ‘The Scream’ is used to foreshadow the sort of torment nightmare that awaits Paul, but by the end of the film this comparison is fully literalised as a shell within which Paul is trapped, unable to move, speak, or even scream out in pain. It should be no surprise that the woman who moulds this sculpture around him is just another false ally in a long line of them, and yet her betrayal does pack an extra sting given the moment of tender understanding the two shared. “I just want to live,” he tells her honestly, cutting through the miasma of confusion that pervades the streets of New York outside the bar where they slow dance to Peggy Lee’s hauntingly existential rendition of ‘Is That All There Is?’

Strong visual and narrative form, turning Paul into a powerless, objectified sculpture like the one set up earlier.

The subtext is potent all through the film, but in this moment as Paul becomes objectified in the most literal sense of the word, Scorsese’s metaphors rise to the surface in an overwhelming wave, washing over and incapacitating the young upstart. It only makes sense that with his eventual escape from his physical encasement comes the rising sun, and an all too convenient drop-off out the front of his workplace just as his colleagues file in. With no other choice but to sit back down at his desk and start another day of work, he remains a feeble commodity, lacking any ability to achieve his most basic personal goals. In a mirror of the very first shot, Scorsese’s camera hurtles through the office at a breakneck pace, frantically turning corners with no destination in sight, damning Paul back into the crowd of suits he came from. There is no end to the modern-day nightmare that After Hours so dismally paints out – it is defined by the absence of anything that gives life meaning, isolating Paul in a limbo with no partner, no friends, and no home.

The camera rushing through the office in formal bookends, starting the corporate cycle all over again.

After Hours is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

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