Stranger Among Us

In Stranger Among Us, director Sidney Lumet takes one of his recurrent film topics, the urban police thriller, and situates it in the context of Hasidic culture in New York's Williamsburg. Unfortunately, the end result is a dramatically unsatisfying, psychologically shallow film–one of Lumet's weakest–about the contrast between two totally different worlds.

Melanie Griffith is cast in the new movie as police detective Emily Eden, a modern career woman in every sense of the term. The ultimate professional, life has hardened Emily, making her tough and emotionally detached. She is a single woman who is engaged in a sexual, but loveless, affair. We later learn that Emily is the daughter of an abusive alcoholic father who was also a cop. The narrative sets her up as a woman ready for some personal softening and a more meaningful consciousness.

In the first scene, the independent and proud Emily refuses to call for backup, which nearly causes the death of her partner who is also her lover. While he is recovering in the hospital, her supervisor assigns her to a routine case–a missing person–except that the missing person is a Hasidic Jew. To resolve what turns out to be a murder mystery, Emily goes undercover among the Hasidim.

Once this frame is established, the film's heart–and focus–becomes the attraction and platonic romance between two extreme personalities: Emily and Ariel (Eric Thal), a bright Talmudic student, who is destined to replace his adoptive father as the community's Rebbe.

The plot of the movie bears strong resemblance to Peter Weir's Witness, in which Harrison Ford went undercover among the Amish in Pennsylvania and fell in love with one of their members. And interestingly, the Lumet movie has similar problems to the l985 film: Highly contrived, the thriller elements don't jell with the central melodrama.

The thriller imposed on the story doesn't make much sense. Because the outsider Emily first arrives in the community as a detective, most of the members know her identity by the time she goes undercover. The prime suspects–the Baldessari brothers–make for such obvious villains that one immediately knows the murderer must be somebody else. You may also find it hard to believe that as a N.Y. policewoman, Emily is completely ignorant of the Hasidic community; she has never heard about kosher food or the required separation of meat from dairy products!

Lumet and scenarist Robert J. Avrech are clearly not interested in constructing a logical or engaging mystery. Instead, they use the thriller format superficially–as an excuse to show the transformation of a contemporary woman after encountering a highly moral universe.

Lumet emphasizes the ideological contrast of a moralistic traditionalist life, centering on strong family and community values, and one dominated by careerism and work. The first sequence of the movie crosscuts between the devout Hasidic Jews, spending their time studying, and scenes establishing Emily's hollow existence. Emily's world is shot in a realistic, matter of fact, manner, whereas the Hasidic community is photographed in golden, soft-focused light. This device represents much more than a stylistic choice. Lumet, assisted by cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak, idealize the Hasidic world by depicting it as permanently washed in a glowing light.

I don't want to read too much into Lumet's personal biography, but his reverential treatment of the Hasidic subculture may derive from his guilt as an assimilated Jew. Midway through the film, Lumet forgets the thriller–and the story–and chronicles the preparations for a Sabbath celebration, recording in great detail the communal spirit of praying, eating, dancing.

But Lumet's all embracing veneration of the Hasidic lifestyle lacks any criticism. “They are a fundamentalist group,” Lumet said in an interview, “they don't question what their discipline is, they don't question their lives.” But fundamentalism, in any religion, and lack of questioning, might be dubious values to cherish under certain circumstances. Lumet never questions the blind adherence to most restrictive rituals–he appears to suggest that the Hasidic lifestyle is preferable, because it's old-fashioned.

Moreover, female viewers might raise a question or two about the movie's unambiguous portrayal of the subservient position of Hasidic women–every woman in the film is described as willingly accepting her lot as housewife and mother.

Melanie Griffith is an actress who likes to stretch, here playing the reversal of her previous outing, Shining Through. Physically, Griffith's Gentile looks are most appropriate, and her charm as a performer helps overcome the film's more naive aspects. Griffith has some moving encounters with Thal, an inexperienced actor whose natural shyness suits the character of Ariel.

But try as they may, the two actors can't overcome the film's flaws. “We are not quaint or exotic,” Ariel says in anger in an earlier scene. Unfortunately, A Stranger Among Us commits the error of depicting the Hasidim as quaint, exotic–and cute.