Jamey Sheridan, who plays the title role in Bette Gordon’s achingly sad memory film Handsome Harry, has a long, somewhat flat face that can seem a mask of blandness or assume, in the half-light, a faintly satanic cast. It’s the face of a man with a secret, and, also, perhaps, of a man who keeps secrets from himself. Laconic on the surface, he is balled up within. Shortly after his 52nd birthday, Harry, a divorced Albany, New York, contractor, receives a call from a guilt-ravaged Navy buddy, Kelley (Steve Buscemi), on his deathbed. Kelley tells Harry he thinks he’s going to hell. More than 30 years ago, Harry, Kelley, and three other sailors committed something very, very bad: a drunken, near-fatal assault on a comrade they’d learned was gay. The actions of the others, though sociopathic, was born of blind, stupid prejudice. What Harry did, we will gradually learn, came from an even more abominable place.
The closeted skeleton in Handsome Harry is easy to perceive in the movie’s first half. It’s not much of a mystery. The structure — a road trip in which Harry meets and quizzes his ex-buddies, one at a time, driving south toward Miami, where the victim, David, resides — is borderline plodding. The brief flashbacks, some of them in jazz clubs, suggest, in their look and tone, the Korean War instead of post-Vietnam. But the flaws, in the end, recede. Each of Harry’s encounters is strange, gripping, and revelatory. None of these men has put that night behind him. Yet none has coped with the memory — and the guilt — in anything like the same way.
Nicholas T. Proferes’s screenplay breaks each meeting into vivid dramatic beats, a semi-surreal glimpse of lives and marriages, followed by Harry’s awkward, inevitable question: Do you remember what happened that night? The four actors are beyond praise. Buscemi, more gaunt and hollow-eyed than ever (which is saying something), suggests a man eaten away from within. As the affluent realtor Rheems, John Savage is deformed by a messy, uncontainable rage. Aidan Quinn, fresh off an equally marvelous performance in the middling Irish ghost story The Eclipse, is Porter, a professor who has channeled his guilt into anti-militarism, anti-machismo. (This is perhaps the film’s least credible conceit.) Finally, and most frighteningly, is Titus Welliver as Gebhardt, a born-again Christian whose wife is now a paraplegic. The sight of him clutching a golf club and fighting to keep his bile from rising is scarier than anything he does as the original Man in Black on Lost.
Gordon has radar for the uneasy, crumbling mask of the archetypal American male, especially when the subtext is homosexuality. But this is not a reductive vision. She’s careful to show Harry’s larger spirit. When he slides into intimacy with Rheems’s wife (the stunning Mariann Mayberry), you get a glimpse of the man whom David once gazed on. The victim (an enthralling Campbell Scott) makes an appearance, and the quiet confrontation is a coup de theatre. David has honed this script for 30 years, and every word he utters is momentous. Handsome Harry transcends its somewhat melodramatic narrative. It is, above all, a ghost story. The ghosts aren’t just those of the innocent men crushed by a world that wouldn’t let them in. They’re also the spirits of that world’s inhabitants, who in their fear killed what was finest in themselves.