Maybe because he's one himself, Alex Karpovsky has a knack for making movies about obsessives. Usually they are of the neurotic, funny, sad-sack variety — semi-auto biographic characters like the hapless indie filmmakers in The Whole Story (2005) and in his recent feature, Red Flag. They are neurotic and solipsistic, but in the end the only lasting harm they do is to themselves. Not so in Rubberneck, a disturbing and deceptively subtle psychological thriller that outshines similar recent efforts by established masters Steven Soderbergh (Side Effects) and Park Chan-wook (Stoker). Not many laughs in this story about a researcher in a Boston-area laboratory, played by Karpovsky, who turns an ill-considered one-night stand into an existential catastrophe.
As Paul, the scientist, Karpovsky demonstrates an acting depth and range that might surprise those familiar with him only from his role as the beloved asshole Ray on the HBO hit Girls. At first his nerdy techie seems appealing, if distant; far less creepy than, say, Norman Bates at the beginning of Psycho. Paul can join the give and take of the ironic small talk at a Christmas office party, enough to charm his fellow worker Danielle (Jaime Ray Newman) into a frivolous carnal weekend. Not frivolous for Paul, however, who doesn't take it well when Danielle blows him off.
Then comes the ominous "eight months later" subtitle. At work, no one notices that Paul has taken an inward turn for the worse. He's still brooding over Danielle's rejection, covertly watching her when she flirts with a new employee. The viewer, though, shares his suffering with increasing, suffocating intensity. Karpovsky achieves this not so much with close-ups, but indirectly, showing Paul off to the side or in the background, spying and glowering. Like the guinea pigs that he caresses and dissects, Paul is barely acknowledged, absorbed into settings that are as sterile and oppressive as the laboratory. Like Roman Polanski in The Tenant and Repulsion, Karpovsky makes his protagonist more sympathetic as he becomes more dehumanized.
That isn't to say he doesn't do terrible things. At a certain point, Paul's actions become unforgivable, and Karpovsky's ploy to make them at least comprehensible seems a little contrived. Not so Paul's final reconciliation, which, rubberneckers ourselves, we watch with compassion and horror.
RUBBERNECK :: Directed and written by Alex Karpovsky :: With Alex Karpovsky, Jaime Ray Newman, Dennis Staroselsky, Amanda Good Hennessey, and Dakota Shepard :: Tribeca Films :: 85 minutes ::Brattle Theatre :: March 1-3