Criterion Prediction #263: The Plumber, by Alexander Miller

Title: The Plumber 

Year: 1979

Director: Peter Weir

Cast: Judy Morris, Ivar Kants, Robert Coleby, Candy Raymond 

Synopsis: While her husband is occupied with his associates at the World Health Organization, Jill (Morris) is at home busy studying for her master’s program; when a seemingly ordinary plumber Max (Kants) enters their place, it seems like a routine visit. But, as time goes on, his overbearing presence, invasive demeanor and predatory humor grow more and more volatile. Simultaneously, Jill feels targeted by his cunning behavior while everyone else is impervious.

Critique: The Plumber feels like a companion to Weir’s other earlier directorial effort, the wholly odd but charming The Cars That Ate Paris. The films couldn’t be more different in terms of story, but they share that wonderfully dizzying and hypnotic Weir aesthetic. Strikingly self-assured and tautly structured, this is a shrewdly assembled thriller. 

Clocking in at a lean 78 minutes, it plays with gender roles, sexual repression, academic elitism, privacy, classism, and of course, colonialism. But above all, The Plumber’s resonance emits from its probe into gender and psychological manipulation. It’s an endlessly frustrating movie, which is why it’s so relentlessly compelling. It’s Hitchcockian, but there’s the earthy hypnotism Weir would explore in Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave

Eschewing convention, Jill isn’t the “bored housewife” trope but a cautious intellectual; we get a whiff of a colonialist and classist mentality as her apartment is donned with tribal regalia you’d expect to see in the anthropology department at your university. And you can tell she’d condescend to Max the plumber even if he weren’t an intrusive, obnoxious, and predatory clod. But is Max really such a drag? Well, from Jill’s (and ours) point of view, he’s the worst; this is the kind of guy you dread getting stuck next to on the bus, the guy who invites himself to parties and is the last to leave as you’re cleaning up around him, the special kind of asshole who intentionally makes you uncomfortable, talks too much and too loud, who puts his dirty feet on your furniture. And yet, everyone else in the film seems to love his shenanigans; the super, Jill’s neighbors, even her husband thinks he’s a real card, despite his wife’s protests that she feels sexually threatened by this stranger in their flat.

And yet, Weir doesn’t patronize his characters (or the audience for that matter) in that “maybe it’s all in her head” means of storytelling. There’s resonance in The Plumber because it flirts with duality. Still, there’s a more simple resolution – Jill is being threatened, Jill is being manipulated, Jill is psychologically abused, and her fragile state of mind is just her imagination. Maybe she’s nervous, hysterical even, but isn’t that a fair response to an abrasive stranger in your house, and the world won’t listen to your concerns? 

There’s a lot to unpack with The Plumber, and Weir gives into to some elemental symbolism as Max’s haphazard repair job produces geysers of fetid water as the pipes burst; it’s hard not to feel like he’s evoking the immersive atmosphere of his 1977 film The Last Wave

Why it Belongs in the Collection: Seeing as The Plumber has some serious streaming cred with The Criterion Collection since it’s available with a twirling “C” in the intro since Criterion’s Hulu days, this is more of a “when” not an “if” movie. This is pure speculation, but maybe we’d get a dual release featuring The Plumber and The Cars that Ate Paris since they’re often relegated as second-tier status compared to Weir’s other more popular films. It would be a fun inclusion to have a double bill release like Criterion’s The Killer’s featuring both Robert Siodmak’s 1946 and Don Siegel’s 1964 versions or Monte Hellman’s The Shooting / Ride in the Whirlwind double bill.

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