In the second season of HBO’s Girls, Alex Karpovsky’s Ray emerged as the show’s unlikely moral center. Ray was a comic character during the first season — his bracing one-liners were a welcome antidote to everyone else’s narcissism — so it’s pleasantly surprising when Lena Dunham now gives Ray heartfelt moments of self-loathing and genuine affection. The same inward reserves of emotion are on display in Rubberneck, a slow-burn thriller co-written and directed by Karpovsky. His character is a million miles away from who he plays on Girls, yet as an actor, Karpovsky has no trouble shifting from an ornery Brooklyn hipster to a tortured scientist.
In a prologue where the dialogue is barely heard, we see Paul (Karpovsky) at a house party with his colleagues. He brings his A-game to Danielle (Jaime Ray Newman), and manages to get her into bed. Karpovsky and co-screenwriter Garth Donovan jump ahead eight months, and Paul’s unreciprocated affection for Danielle veers toward obsession. When visiting his sister (Amanda Good Hennessey), he attempts to justify his feelings for her. A handsome new lab tech arrives, and Paul instantly notices how he and Danielle grow friendly. Paul’s awkward loneliness is so pervasive that he hires a high-end prostitute to pretend to be his girlfriend. But she is not a strong enough distraction, so when Danielle and the lab tech go out on a date, Paul’s desire for control upends Danielle’s life.
Karpovsky is in nearly every scene, and he goes out of his way to make the character unlikable yet sympathetic. He certainly looks the part — his glasses are always askew and his work outfit is slightly too big for him. In a way, Paul is like “that guy” that exists in every office. Nervous and weird, he thinks he deserves friendship and more just because he’s nice. All that changes once Paul’s fixation on Danielle gets unhealthy. Behind the camera, Karpovsky focuses on his character’s eyes, which dart nervously before they swell with terror (oddly, there are several wide exterior shots that serve no narrative purpose). Still, in the closing twenty minutes, there is a well-earned shift in how we think about Paul. Shots that initially seem like non-sequiturs coalesce so we may understand what drives Paul’s peculiar, self-destructive tendencies. By conflating thriller elements with a tortured epiphany, Karpovsky’s character study is satisfying without making a big fuss about its insight.
Writer/director Paul Schrader is famous for his “man in a room films,” in which a loner finds inexorably finds himself on a self-destructive path. Rubberneck carries on in that same tradition: even when Paul shares a lab with his co-workers, the camera hardly waivers from Paul unless it’s to distance him, literally and socially. Although the other actors do fine work, it’s all in service of Paul’s increasingly small world. In its final minutes, Karpovsky boxes in Paul until he can scarcely breathe ,and his thoughts consume him. And it’s not exactly an act of pity when Karpovsky opens up the space for the final shot. Paul cannot go back to the life he had, yet he looks as if he finally has what’s necessary to go forward without anxiety, or dread.