Seeing as how Australian director Peter Weir has long been ranked among the best living filmmakers, even the seemingly trivial projects from his early days are of interest, if only to study how he developed his craftsmanship. Originally made for Australian television and running a scant 76 minutes, The Plumber is especially noteworthy in this regard because it represents a transitional stage between Weir’s initial theatrical features (which tended toward eerie surrealism) and his breakthrough films (which were straight-ahead narratives with lyrical touches). The Plumber is a seemingly simplistic thriller about a housewife being menaced by a strange contractor, but the deceptive façade hides layers of meaning and symbolism. None will mistake The Plumber for a lost classic of the thriller genre, but it’s an expertly made piece that demonstrates how much texture a gifted storyteller can derive from minimal elements.
Set in a graduate-student housing complex, the movie focuses on anthropology student Jill Cowper (Judy Morris), who spends most of her days in a small apartment while her husband, medical researcher Brian Cowper (Robert Coleby), works in a lab. One day, a burly bloke named Max (Ivar Kants) shows up unannounced and claims he’s got a work order to check the plumbing in the apartment’s bathroom. Thus begins a strange odyssey during which Max shows up, day after day, to bedevil Jill by making inordinate amounts of noise, poking through her personal items, and revealing frightening facts about himself—at one point, for instance, Max “jokes” that he was once imprisoned for rape. The clever spin that writer-director Weir puts on the material is a level of ambiguity related to Max’s true nature. Is he evil or merely obnoxious? And is Jill justifiably nervous or just high-strung?
Resisting every opportunity to elevate The Plumber into a full-on horror show, Weir focuses exclusively on the tensions of interpersonal relationships, as well as the problems that arise from otherness. Despite all of her insights into primitive cultures, for instance, Jill seems completely flummoxed about how to handle a working-class bruiser. Many viewers will find The Plumber underwhelming or even dull, since it never quite goes to the place that one expects (read: outright violence). Nonetheless, the complexity and naturalism of the performances is impressive. Further, Weir and his crew find an incredible number of angles for shooting the main location of the apartment, so even though the film feels claustrophobic (which suits the story), it never feels visually repetitive.
The Plumber: GROOVY