Though the term “Kafkaesque” gets bandied about a lot, it’s only correctly used a relatively small portion of the time. Admittedly, it’s a hard thing to succinctly describe without sitting someone down, making them read The Trial cover to cover, and going “pretty much that” as soon as they’re done. But hey, let’s try anyway. Kafka wrote in large part about helplessness, about being trapped in something overwhelming, incomprehensible, and perhaps hostile. It could be a labyrinthine bureaucratic system, or even your own suddenly unrecognizable body. He wrote about normal people suddenly thrust into the abnormal and nightmarish, seemingly at the whims of an uncaring universe, which itself doesn’t sound too complicated, but it’s a strangely hard thing to get really “right,” sort of like Lovecraft. There have only been a small handful of movies directly based on Kafka’s work, and directors ranging from Orson Welles to Steven Soderberg have taken tries at getting his schtick right. An often overlooked film in the far more plentiful genre of films that use Kafka’s themes and ideas rather than directly adapting his works is the 1985 black comedy After Hours, which also happens to be one of the more often overlooked films in the oeuvre of its director, Martin Scorsese.
After Hours isn’t one of those Scorsese films that is talked about to death, like with Goodfellas or Taxi Driver, and that is a shame since it ranks among his best work. It was made while production on The Last Temptation of Christ had stalled so hard that it looked like the film would never get made, and Scorsese, understandably for someone in the situation of having a dream project potentially slip away, was in a dark place, feeling powerless. This may seem like a trivial fact, but it’s actually key to understanding why After Hours works. That feeling of powerlessness, of being a victim of happenstance and capricious fate, is what drives a good chunk of the film. Had it fallen to a different director, or even the same director at a different time, it’s almost certain it wouldn’t have turned out as well as it did.
After Hours follows Paul Hackett, an office worker living in New York in the 80s. After a chance encounter with a woman in a diner, Paul heads to the trendy Soho district, far from his usual hangouts. From there, virtually everything that can go wrong does, from lost cab fare to the woman he’s there to meet turning out to be married, to Paul eventually finding himself pursued by an angry mob after a case of mistaken identity. It’s a comedy of errors in the truest sense, one where things always manage to fail in just the right way to leave our protagonist in the worst possible situation. Of course, it isn’t all exactly in the hands of fate. Despite being our hero, Paul is actually kind of an ass, far from blameless for everything that befalls him. If there’s any real corollary, it’s Seinfeld, which the film predates by just a few years. Take a person with some questionable reactions to bizarre circumstances, add a few unfortunate coincidences, steep the whole thing in an foot of New York urbania, and you’ve got After Hours.
There is another layer at work, however, beyond the Kafkaesque and Scorsese’s feelings of frustration and helplessness. Soho in the 1980s was a very strange and wild place, the kind of neighborhood where you could find Jean-Michel Basquiat sleeping on the floor of John Lurie’s apartment while Jim Jarmusch films Permanent Vacation around him. The “No Wave” film scene was in full swing, and scads of other avant-garde movements as well. To an outsider looking in, it must have been bewildering, perhaps even frightening. There’s a fair bit of that sentiment in After Hours, that sense of being a “straight” person looking in on a world that’s operating on a whole ‘nother wavelength. Of course, this means the film could be read as being somewhat alarmist, a work that paints avant-garde subcultures and movements as alien and frightening.
This would only be the case, however, if Paul were presented as the perfectly normal, upstanding middle-class worker suddenly thrown into the terrifying world of weird artsy types and stoners. But remember that Paul is, as we’ve already covered, a bit of a schmuck. As much as it’s about him being at the whims of the world around him, he’s also to blame for some of his situation. This is also where things break a bit from the Kafka vibe, and where After Hours becomes more of its own thing. Rather than purely a story about some poor sap being wrenched about by incomprehensible forces, it’s also a movie about perspective.
Though Paul never quite says it out loud, it becomes fairly obvious that he thinks he’s the “normal” one in this situation, that he’s a regular person, and everyone else is unhinged and weird. As the film goes on, that certainty becomes shakier, especially for the audience. Paul’s status as an audience surrogate character starts to erode as he begins to make more rash decisions, more ill-advised moves. It’s at this point that After Hours handily escapes being about how scary and weird the subculture at hand is, Reefer Madness-style. To the denizens of Soho, Paul is unquestionably the weird one, the one who seems kinda crazy and unhinged. With just the slightest change in perspective, After Hours could have very easily been a movie about a neighborhood of artists and misfits banding together to protect their home from an outside threat. Of course, we know more about that outside threat than they do.
After Hours keeps this balance wonderfully, never straying into demonizing the Soho-ites, nor Paul. His confusion at their whole scene is apparent, but it never turns to condemnation, and likewise Paul is portrayed as thoughtless, panic-stricken, rash, but never a bad person. After Hours could have easily been about an upright normie versus the scary art-weirdos, or the neighborhood of artists versus the evil entitled yuppie, but it never goes in either direction, winding up instead as a film about a bad set of circumstances made worse by people just being on different wavelengths.