Existence is based entirely on human kind’s subjective view of reality. So what happens when that reality is shifted to someone else’s reality? That is precisely the question that Focus, directed by Neal Slavin and based upon the novel by Arthur Miller, attempts to address. The story focuses on Lawrence Newman, a circumstantial bigot played by William H. Macy (Magnolia, Psycho) who purchases a new pair of glasses which make him look like a Jew to the outside world. All sorts of unsavory consequences ensue. Newman gets demoted at work, ironically just after he turns away Gertrude Hart (Laura Dern), a woman he perceives was to have a “Jewish” name and face. An evangelical supremacist group, the Union Crusaders, begins to target him with violence. He finally finds a new job in a company under Jewish management together with Gertrude, and eventually marries her. Together, they struggle with the forces of hate brewing about them.
The 1940s world constructed by first- time director and still photographer Slavin is bright and crisp, almost surreal at times in its perfection. The character Newman, too, seems like a caricature on occasion. His impeccable propriety and golden restraint are congruent only with the perfect cleanliness of his fabricated world. Macy transmits Newman’s cowardice and unease with unparalleled conviction. He demands sympathy and provokes loathing at once for his prejudice and his inability to stand up for himself in front of those he fears. Gertrude, his love, is as outspoken as he is timid, as radiant as he is subdued, and seemingly the most unlikely match for such a man. Dern’s Gertrude is leggy and pronouncedly sensual; she is a bright light in what appears to be a very pragmatically ordered society controlled by hate.
As their relationship develops in only a few frames, the validity of their attraction to each other is never made truly believable considering their entirely disparate personalities. The love motif never becomes plausible enough to work as a triumphant anecdote at the end.
The film attempts to make Newman into a hero with the quietly dramatic ending. However, it is hard to dismiss the prejudice and hatred he had for Jews throughout the script. In reality, he is no hero—he is an everyman, one who has striven his entire life only for calm, order and self-preservation. When he becomes associated with the people he hates, he comes eventually to realize several things about the nature of prejudice and the experience of being victimized mentally and physically. However, his actions are by no means heroic, and so Focus sends a powerful message which applies to all humanity and all forms of hate.
It is inevitable that relevance to the modern landscape will be sought from such a film, especially in light of recent events. Although the novel was written in 1947 and the film is still set in that same decade, it is still just as relevant in today’s landscape. More importantly, the combination of cinematic elements leaves a lasting imprint in the mind of the viewer. Slavin’s arresting photographic scenes at the beginning and interspersed throughout the film lend the sequences a more surreal quality, however the repetitive images backed with quiet eerie music and featuring Macy’s intense, yet sheepish, glances, are some of the most memorable of the movie. Focus is surely not a film to be quickly dismissed.