Good morning, Paul.
Scorsese proves himself a master puppeteer of the unconscious with After Hours, his batshit insane, hilarious and genuinely horrifying descent into a dream/nightmare New York, filtered through the eyes of word processor Paul Hackett, who is having a really, really bad night.
What begins as an offbeat comedy quickly devolves into madness. Logicless, liminal moments of horror and hilarity rub up uncomfortably close together: Marcy recounts being raped, and then tells Paul about her ex-boyfriend’s Wizard of Oz obession. A phallic zoom+pan into a telephone as the prospect of sex appears hints at the movies impending dive into the psychological deep end.
But that’s just the beginning. Like many bad dreams, what starts off as a mundane and jumbled assortment of half-coherent moments becomes an avalanch of fear and insecurity. Suddenly, Paul finds himself on a delightfully inescapable dream-quest to do one simple thing: return home.
What is really intriguing to me about After Hours is just how carefully thought out all of the psychological elements are. It feels like there could be a whole second movie made to tell the story of guilt, repression, fantasy, abandonment and ice cream trucks which bubbles below the surface of After Hours.
And the real-life, working mechanics of dreams are captured so perfectly, too. After a scene in which Paul experiences a strong feeling of guilt, there’s a brilliant moment in which he tries to jump the barrier of the subway and gets caught by the guard. It perfectly illustrates the banal and anxious way that feelings like guilt really operate on the subconscious.
Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker go to great lengths to recreate that feeling in the film’s visuals, too. The roaming camera and subtly disjointed editing create an uncomfortable feeling of instability. And quick-cut moments like a pair of keys suddenly dropping to Paul out a window are jarring, maintaining an atmosphere of constant tension even during moments of levity.
It all comes to a rapturous, screwball climax in the film’s unpredictable last half an hour, leaving you rubbing your eyes in disbelief as the credits roll: did that really just fucking happen?
Much like The King of Comedy before it, I think After Hours is criminally underrated in Scorsese’s filmography. This is an ambitious yet hilarious psychological drama that has none of the codified twists and turns we associate with the genre (thats you, Shutter Island). Instead, After Hours is another unique and unforgettable film from one of cinema’s greatest living directors.