Atom Egoyan’s The Adjuster

Tom McSorley,
Atom Egoyan’s The Adjuster.
University of Toronto Press, 2009
ISBN: 978-1-4426-1048-4
US$16.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by University of Toronto Press)

To his credit, Atom Egoyan has achieved some commercial success and considerable international acclaim without fully capitulating to standard audience expectations. His films are difficult. There is both a stylistic continuity and thematic consistency in them. The question is whether his work is rich with meaning that rewards the serious viewer or stubbornly opaque even after repeated viewing informed by critical commentary.

The Adjuster (Canada 1991) was Egoyan’s fourth feature film and perhaps, in some ways, the apotheosis of his cinematic idiosyncrasy. It is not an easy film in any sense. It seems at times ponderous, studied, tendentious, pretentious, cold, or silly. Yet it intrigues, because it is also bizarre, provocative, imaginative, and clearly intelligent. Does a coherent vision bring these contrary qualities into some kind of whole worth interpreting and deciphering?

Although he doesn’t put it that way, Tom McSorley in this monograph makes a thoughtful and thorough effort to answer this question. The book, one of what appears to be a nascent occasional series of monographs on individual Canadian films (there is one on David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence [USA/Gemany 2005] and one on Joyce Wieland’s The Far Shore [Canada 1976]), has ninety-one pages of text, a bibliography, some notes, and a few illustrations. The format is modeled on the British Film Institute’s invaluable Classics series. It’s a format that allows the author to say most of what needs to be said about a film, and then some.

McSorley sees The Adjuster as a critique, both satirical and sympathetic, of an advanced materialistic society in which everything is valued monetarily. The film’s main character is an insurance claims adjustor who meets with owners of houses destroyed by fire. Although he transgresses the expected professional boundaries by sleeping with his clients – both men and women – the most affecting scenes are those in which he and a client attempt to place a monetary value on lost items. It’s as if this sort of exchange is one of the last meaningful kinds of human transaction available in the modern technological age. By contrast, sexual congress is routine and unemotional, like buying a newspaper or commenting on the weather.

McSorley doesn’t persuade me that there’s much more to the film than this, but I don’t regard his effort as a failure. His interpretation is detailed and observant. My problem with the film is probably more a matter of taste than anything else. Certainly the film has gotten a serious, nuanced, apologia from McSorley.

McSorley also presents the film in the context of the development of Canadian cinema. There may be more material on evolving Canadian film policy than most readers outside of Canada can or wish to absorb. At times McSorley gets downright wonkish. Yet even this aspect of the book is enlightening, and he makes a cogent argument for the effect of government policy on the art of national cinema, at least in the case of Canada.

D.B. Jones
Drexel University, USA.

Created on: Sunday, 25 April 2010

About the Author

D.B. Jones

About the Author

D.B. Jones

D.B. Jones is Head of the Media Arts Department at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He taught at La Trobe University in the early 1970s, is the author of two books on the National Film Board of Canada, and has written and/or directed numerous films, among them the Australian experimental feature Yakkety yak (1974).View all posts by D.B. Jones →