Trust presents harrowing, gripping tale

The last time most of us heard from David Schwimmer, he was earning a seven-figure salary for the penultimate episodes of Friends, seemingly destined for a ritzy retirement.

Photo courtesy of Millenium Films

Now, Schwimmer has taken up residence behind the camera with Trust, a new film about online sexual predators and the devastation suffered by victims and their families. It is one of the most bruising films of the year and deserves to be seen by a wide audience.

Fourteen-year-old Annie Cameron (Liana Liberato) lives the life of an average middle-class Chicago teenager. She plays varsity volleyball, enjoys the company of two loving parents, Will and Lynn (Clive Owen and Catherine Keener), and wrestles with the desire to be accepted by her school’s in-crowd. She also has an online friend with whom she frequently chats — a hunky junior named Charlie who hails from California.

Realizing every MySpace generation parent’s worst nightmare, the two meet up at the local mall, where “Charlie” is revealed to be a 40-year-old man (Chris Henry Coffey).

Here’s the thing, though: At face value, Charlie is a long way from the emaciated pedophiles we’ve come to know on the evening news.

Boyish and full of flattery, he emotionally manipulates the uncertain Annie, until the two are in a dark motel room and it’s too late to run down the hall.

Here, Schwimmer does something extraordinary.

Instead of shoving our noses into the obscenity of rape, he trains his camera toward the floral walls of the room, and slowly disappears into a patch of blue flowers.

It’s the same trick Lars von Trier employed in Antichrist, when a murky vase of green stems spoke unspeakable horrors of nature.

In Schwimmer’s hands, those flowers seethe with the darkest implications of violation and memory repression.

The film’s strongest section is the aftermath of the act, where Will’s rage and obsession with catching Charlie and beating him to a pulp overshadow Annie’s own rehabilitation.

We realize Annie, faced with frequent grilling by a well-intentioned FBI agent (Jason Clarke), humiliation at school and nothing but stunned disbelief from her dad, might be more damaged by the fallout than by the rape itself.

Owen and Keener are astoundingly believable in their respective embodiments of anger and anguish.

It’s rare an onscreen couple exudes the familiar electricity of a real one.

The scenes of breakdown between Will and Lynn are authentic because we can sense the wisps of lost joy that once steered their lives.

Newcomer Liana Liberato is the star of the picture. In a performance of intelligence, grace and painful vulnerability, she is the cracked voice of reason and compassion in Trust, all too often drowned out by the screams of shock and indignation around her. Liberato’s unusually mature work here is a testament that often, the most effective performances come from those whose craft has not been tainted by years of steady preteen projects in Hollywood.

Still, even if Schwimmer’s picture is viscerally compelling, the question we must ask is, why subject ourselves to a work of such dark nature? Trust is an abrasive film, but a timely one.

Whereas The Social Network tracked the digital translation of relationships and the narcissism that came with them, Schwimmer, who has worked extensively with rape victims and their families, asks what comes next.

Internet purists live and die by the right to allow the web to go unpoliced, but doesn’t such a stance imply an inherent faith in personal responsibility? You have to wonder how the distribution of child pornography, or documents referring to women as “targets” and drawing an imaginary line between “rape” and “non-consent” would still flourish if we allowed ourselves to get over that ecstatic freedom of consummating our dreams though a machine.

As Trust grimly shows us, such consummation can destroy real people. That is the film’s flame, and the reason why its occasional moments of heavy-handedness — Will’s career as an American Apparel-esque advertising exec, an unnaturally tidy closing scene — can be overlooked. In the fashion of an artist and an activist, Mr. Schwimmer has shown us something that most of us will not want to see, but definitely need to.