In Working Man (2020), Allery Parkes.(Peter Gerety) gets his walking papers at the plant. As the film opens, he kisses wife Iola (Talia Shire) and heads off as always with lunch bucket and thermos bottle in hand. At the factory, there’s a palpable tension among the multiethnic workforce on their last day, going through the motions to varying degrees. If this were the 1930s or even the 1970s as in Norma Rae (1979), the workers would organize and fight back. In a world where unions have been decimated, it’s every man and woman for themselves. Made before the global pandemic and subsequent economic downturn, the film is still relevant, possibly even more so.
The feature debut from writer, producer and director Robert Jury, Working Man is a fable that both idealizes life in America’s heartland and shows its dark side. For authenticity, filming was done at Illinois’ recently closed Mackray Manufacturing plant. Other scenes and exteriors were filmed in Chicago and Joliet. An older white man, Allery in some ways fits the profile of the type of Fox News viewer who helped elect Donald Trump. However, we don’t know what Allery’s politics are. In his silence, we can only guess what’s in his head. He isn’t an Archie Bunker or Peter Boyle’s bigoted hard hat Joe (1970) who’s constantly spouting off. In the factory, we do get a taste of the different personalities and their reactions to the impending closure.
In the Oscar winning feature documentary American Factory (2019), directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert tell the story of a closed GM plant reopened by a Chinese glass company and the ensuing culture clash with American workers. For Allery and his co-workers, there are no outside saviors. The plant is to be shuttered and they are all redundant. Many or them live in the same neighborhood and are startled the next day when they see Allery headed off to “work,” as usual. A hothead at the plant, young Benny Mendez (J. Salome Martinez), in particular, is skeptical of his motives.
Like the Peter Finch character in Network (1976) Allery is mad as hell and he isn’t going to take it anymore. But, he doesn’t go to an open window and scream. He does what he’s always done and goes to work, paid or not. The rest of the movie is about the consequences of his actions and its impact on the community
Focusing on a brilliant, finely detailed performance by stage and screen veteran Gerety, director Jury with cinematographer Piero Basso takes us inside the factory and shows Allery setting up his work area. In the laying out of tools and the cleaning of the station, there’s a precision and calming of the mind that functions as a meditation, not unlike a Zen master preparing for a tea ceremony. What’s missing is the rest of the assembly line. He’s a solo performer in search of an ensemble. Recently employed and new in town, Walter Brewer (Billy Brown) becomes an ally, then a co-conspirator in a far-fetched but enticingly logical scheme to re-open the plant. Walter is black but that’s not the reason Iola is suspicious of him. She guesses he has a secret but isn’t sure what it is. She and Allery also have a deep wound that may impact on their relationship with Walter.
Brown brings passion and energy to what begins as a quiet, downbeat film. The iconic Shire (The Godfather, Rocky) also gives excellent support as the wife who tries to understand as her husband shows signs of becoming delusional. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times‘ Glenn Whipp, she explained her attraction to supporting roles, saying, “I’m a dog lover, but I’m not a leader of a pack. Leadership is not my great talent.” About Working Man, she says:
I loved the mystery of it. Why does this man keep going to work after his factory closed? And I won’t fully get into it, because that would spoil things. But it speaks to people’s dreams and the transition we’re going through in this country. It really spoke to my soul. We all need a reason to get up in the morning.
To watch the trailer and for VOD, click on the poster: