Alan Pakula's "Orphans" (Mann Plaza Friday) is a tender, often beautifully acted film about violence and male bonding. The movie may play on the cliches of machismo, but there's a sweetness about it, a twisted, nervous delicacy, like a vein throbbing beneath bruised skin. It's suffused with Pakula's humane sensibility; it undermines the fantasies rather than indulging them.
Pakula's source is Lyle Kessler's stage play--adapted by Kessler himself. In it we're pulled into an adolescent hideout, bristling with wolfish rage, where the fantasies are collided with real violence, grown-up gangsterism and blood.
The movie is not a total success. There's a nailed-tight, airless schema to its structure and, by the end, the spontaneity and drive slacken; sentimentality bleeds in. But it's still a moving experience. Kessler's argot-choked lines, Pakula's directorial empathy, the skill and passion of his superb cast--Albert Finney, Matthew Modine and Kevin Anderson--all make this dark fable pulse with life.
It's a life on the edge. In a dilapidated Newark house, set near the railway tracks in fields choked with weeds and garbage, two brothers have carved out a rat's-nest hideaway. One, Phillip (Kevin Anderson), is the introvert--frightened, dependent, unable to leave. The other, Treat (Matthew Modine), is a swashbuckling petty thief, raiding the streets of nearby Manhattan for fenceable booty.
These outcast orphans subsist on TV and Starkist tuna sandwiches. Their relationship is brutal. Treat terrorizes Phillip and tries to keep him dependent. Phillip cowers in a closet, secretly--against Treat's wishes--reading books. As the boys talk, they slouch or pounce on the dirty couches--Treat like a predatory cat, Phillip like a monkey.
Into this nearly incestuous cul-de-sac--thick with must, dust, trash and shadow--comes an interloper, an alcoholic criminal named Harold (Albert Finney), whom Treat intends to hold for ransom. But Harold--too crafty for Treat, too fatherly for Phillip--turns the tables. An orphan himself, he sees the boys as "Dead End Kids," tough-talking B-movie urban camaradoes with a code. He hires them as bodyguard and aide, makes them spiff up the house, gives them sage counsel. This phony familial idyll carries doom in its womb; you can feel darkness descending even as the interior of the ramshackle house becomes white and sparkling.
Kessler's play, in a slangier, all-American way, is reminiscent of Harold Pinter's cryptic, enclosed dramas of menace "The Caretaker" or "The Homecoming." And though "Orphans" is not at all a great play, it's an affecting one; the actors have chances to soar. Where Kessler goes wrong, perhaps, is with Harold: He bastes him with benevolence, skimping on his other, possibly darker sides. The play would have more depth and force if Harold had contrasting nastier edges, like one of Eugene O'Neill's pipe-dream peddlers.
But to say "Orphans" isn't a great play isn't really to demean the movie. Pakula is obviously concerned with the moral and psychological issues, the humanity of the piece, and he translates it with tremendous care and sympathy. After a series of picaresque robbery expeditions by Treat, Pakula all but locks the play indoors, traversing the dust-spattered rooms with calmly athletic long takes drowned in swimming, murky, splattery gray light by cinematographer Don McAlpine.
The final justification for "Orphans" lies in the performances. Anderson, re-creating his stage role, has a slight actorish quality, but his work is intense, heartfelt and moving. Modine is remarkable. Lunging tigerishly though the sad streets and ramshackle house, he seems to be playing right out of his nerves, holding back nothing.
As Harold--the flawed part, the hood-turned-wild boy's mentor--Albert Finney is quietly magnificent. If Finney, in movies like "Shoot the Moon" and "Under the Volcano," seemed to have evolved into one of the screen's finest contemporary actors, his work here confirms it: never showy, never striving for effect, richly natural, shot through with an almost mystical urgency and strength.
Finney, as always, plays his drunk scenes with a mix of merciless objectivity and deep compassion. And, in one tense sequence here--as Harold softly mesmerizes the panicky Phillip while steadily wriggling free from his bonds--he gives a master's lesson in actor's craft and control. Compelling our attention with slight gestures and slow, subtle shifts in tone--the wiggle of a finger, the flat, sonorous rasp of his voice--Finney's Harold becomes, like Sean Connery's Jimmy in "The Untouchables," a classic paterfamilias. In this film's highest moments, his face seems to sweat humanity and tragedy.
'ORPHANS' A Lorimar Pictures presentation. Producer-director Alan Pakula. Script Lyle Kessler. Co-producer Susan Solt. Music Michael Small. Editor Evan Lottman. Production design George Jenkins. Camera Donald McAlpine. With Albert Finney, Matthew Modine, Kevin Anderson.
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.
MPAA rating: R (younger than 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian).