The Plumber (1979)

Directed by Peter Weir

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The Plumber depicts two dichotomies, one concerned with class differences and one between man and woman.  These separations aren’t necessarily related, but the threat posed by an eccentric handyman to a woman mostly confined to her apartment bounces between these two categories.

When the plumber, Max (Ivar Kants), holds power over Jill (Judy Morris), it is because of his physical imposition.  When Jill holds power over Max it is because of her book smarts.  Each takes turns feeling threatened by the other.

This is a horror film but one without any overt scares.  Instead it’s creepy, and in its relative restraint it says more about aspects of our culture than it would were the movie to be loud, sudden and shocking.  The story concerns an intellectual married couple, Jill and Brian (Robert Coleby), living in a small flat in a town to which they are relatively new.  They are there as Robert attempts to get a grant for his studies, and while he works, Jill remains at home deeply involved in her own anthropological studies.  Her focus on tribalism suggests something very primal about the power struggle between her and the plumber who shows up to fix a problem she didn’t know the flat had.

From the very first time we see him we suspect Max is up to something.  He’s a little out there, even for Jill who might argue that she’s seen it all, and he is quick to alternate between dead seriousness and laughing hysteria.  He lies repeatedly, at one point claiming he went to prison for rape, but later he expresses disgust that Jill believed him.

To make matters worse, Max isn’t helping things when it comes to the supposed leak in their bathroom.  He only aggravates the situation, tearing apart the walls and at one point constructing a Jigsaw-like maze of pipe which endangers a visitor they have over for dinner one night.

At first we might suspect that Max is a figment of Jill’s imagination.  They interact often in isolation, and for most of the movie she can only recount his visits to her husband who is never around to see the threat he poses.  Later on she will complain about him to the building manager, and this moment confirms that he is indeed real.

What’s most compelling about this story is the juxtaposition of Max as a threat and the lack of concern generated by anyone around Jill.  It’s not really Max that causes the biggest conflict as much as the stubborn refusal of Jill’s husband and friend to believe her fear.  They wave it away and suggest that she’s overreacting, even when there is physical evidence of Max’s insanity in the form of that pipe maze he constructs in the bathroom.

The maze is absurd, and there’s no logical reason for its construction, and yet the muted reaction Brian has to it is damning.  This is a film about rape culture, on some level, and certainly of predator versus prey.  Max mentions that he raped someone (even if he’s “joking”), and such a sexual threat is very real very early on into the story.  This kind of danger is not uncommon to horror movies, but it’s the ignorance of all those around Jill to what’s happening which inspires the real horror.

It’s unsettling that you could have a story as disturbing as this one surrounded by a world that feels like our own.  The characters around Jill resemble ordinary people, neither broad nor heightened within the story universe.  They are people like you or me who can’t see what’s going on right under their nose, to someone they love.

Max remains a threat throughout the film, but the one time he is knocked back on his heels comes when Jill corrects his grammar.  His defeated reaction to this demonstration of intellectual superiority implies that his volatile eccentricity comes from a place of intellectual insecurity.

The overall feeling I got from this film is one of “otherness,” like in Peter Weir’s early cult film The Cars That Ate Paris.  In that story a man finds himself stuck in a small town that survives by causing deadly car crashes.  Any outsider who passes through is likely to die at the hands of these Deliverance-esque characters.  The point seems to be that these townsfolk are strange, different and unknowable, just as Max is here to Jill, someone whose career is built on anthropology and the study of cultures outside her own.

In The Cars That Ate Paris, a man who survives one of those deadly car crashes finds himself a contributing member of this town only to watch a young group of rebels rise up and take back power.  He is an outsider, but then he finds himself pulled in and indoctrinated, part of the muck.  In The Plumber Jill finds herself in a similar situation, though her descent to the plumber’s level is a means of self-protection.  When no one will believe her story, she plants a valuable piece of jewelry in Max’s car and frames him for robbery.  She must jump into the mud in order to make any meaningful difference.

Up Next: The Shooting (1966), Ida (2013), The Shining (1980)

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