‘Working Man’: A quietly powerful movie, assembled at a Chicago factory
Peter Gerety, strong yet subtle, stars as a man who feels compelled to work his shift even after the plant shuts down.
Early each morning at the same time, Allery Parkes leaves his Chicago bungalow, with metal lunchbox and Thermos in hand, and sets out for the plastics factory where he has worked since God knows when.
Come break time, Allery sits in the same chair at the same table and has his powdered doughnut. Come lunch time, Allery returns to that same spot and has his Braunschweiger sausage-on-white-bread sandwich. Come closing time, Allery heads home, walking with a slight hitch and the weight of 50 years of hard, honest labor on his shoulders.
Brainstorm Media presents a film written and directed by Robert Jury. No MPAA rating. Running time: 108 minutes. Available on demand beginning Tuesday.
Only problem with this routine as of late: The factory has been shut down.
Still, Allery continues to go to the workplace every day even though there’s no real work to be done. So the machines have been turned off; all right, Allery will just start cleaning the entire factory.
Veteran character actor Peter Gerety (so effective as the primary villain in the most recent season of “Ray Donovan”) plays Allery in the quietly magnificent and deeply resonant “Working Man,” which was shot in 20 days in Chicago and one day in Joliet and has a true working-class verisimilitude.
Allery is a man of very few words, yet, with every line reading, every weary sigh, every subtle change in expression, Gerety delivers a performance that is simply great. He plays a man who is simple but not ignorant. Troubled but not troublesome. A man who seems genuinely surprised when his unusual behavior bothers people.
For decades, Allery has worked at New Liberty Plastics, but the factory is shutting down. At 2 p.m. on the final day, the employees are told to wrap it up and go home. But, hey, they’ll be paid a full day’s wages for a half-day’s work. Allery keeps on working and will complete his shift, to the amusement of the snarky corporate bleep overseeing the shutdown. He’s older than dirt, he should have taken retirement when it was offered to him, cracks the jerk in a suit. Maybe they’re hiring at Wal-Mart.
The ever-graceful Talia Shire plays Allery’s loving wife Iola, who isn’t much more of a talker than her husband. (Her mannerisms and social awkwardness are reminiscent of Shire’s Adrian when we first met her in “Rocky.”) Iola is understandably taken aback the morning after the plant closing when she awakes to find Allery in the kitchen, wearing his uniform and packing his lunch.
“Allery, what are you doing?” she asks.
“I’m going to work,” says Allery.
Even after Allery’s former plant manager shows up with three sheriff’s deputies and they give Allery an escort home and tell him they better not have to return, Allery keeps going back to work — this time with an accomplice, his former coworker and across-the-street neighbor Walter (Billy Brown from “How to Get Away with Murder”).
What happens next is something of a miracle, or maybe it’s a mirage. Walter persuades a couple of dozen other former employees to join him and Allery in occupying the factory and completing five unfinished outstanding orders. They figure out a way to turn the power back on, and they go to work — much to the dismay of the parent company. This could turn out to be a great American underdog story, or perhaps Walter and Allery and the rest are merely tilting at windmills.
“Working Man” is filled with memorable little moments, as when Allery and Iola are invited to Walter’s home for dinner and Iola hesitates before they knock on the door, saying, “My mother told me to beware of beards.”
“Why?” asks Allery.
“Because they have something to hide.”
A pause. “What about Jesus?”
Billy Brown gives a screen-commanding performance as Walter, who comes across as an exceedingly kind and decent man but is battling to keep the demons inside him from bubbling to the surface. Like Allery and Iola, who lost their grown son, Walter is haunted by a family tragedy — but it’s a very different kind of heartbreak.
Late in the story, there’s a pivotal scene between Walter and Avery, and Brown and Gerety soar as if on the stage playing Shakespeare. It’s some of the most powerful acting I’ve seen in any movie this year.
Writer-director Robert Jury has pieced together a timely, elegiac slice of Rust Belt life and of the good men and women who want nothing more than to work and provide for their families but find themselves on the outside looking in.
NOTE: In a sad case of life imitating art, Markray Manufacturing in Norridge, where “Working Man” was shot, closed last December after 71 years. Only a few employees remain in the plant to see the closure through to its final stages.