Dustin Hoffman is Max Dembo, an ex-con on parole after six years in prison. With his first taste of freedom he is optimistic, pursuing employment, romance, and community with a weary sort of enthusiasm. Almost immediately he finds himself in trouble again though, partly because he doesn’t follow the terms of his release, but significantly also because his parole officer (a perfectly cast M. Emmet Walsh) doesn’t trust or believe in him.
Based on No Beast So Fierce, a book by ex-con Edward Bunker, Straight Time has all the imprecise messiness of real life. It is a world of rundown apartment buildings and beat-up cars. Existence is uneasy and made more difficult by the choices of its essentially well-meaning characters. It’s also a great showcase for the early work of the kind of actors that always deliver: in addition to Walsh there is Harry Dean Stanton, Theresa Russell, Gary Busey, and Kathy Bates all moving in early roles.
Max meets up again with his old friend Willy (Busey) and his wife Selma (Bates) immediately senses trouble. She tells Max not to come around anymore; she’s hopeful that her husband has finally gotten himself together, but she also seems aware that it is far too easy for him to be led astray. There’s a scene where they’re seated around the kitchen table and Willy lashes out at their son (his own child Jake Busey) and is immediately regretful. You feel the hopelessness of this man with no self-control.
Max is also this way. He constantly makes bad decisions, driven by his refusal to accept any point of view but his own. When he flirts with employment office counselor Jenny (Russell, too young and attractive for the role, but mesmerizing), you know she is being set up for heartbreak. When he suggests they skip out on a dinner check because he doesn’t want her to pay for it and he’s broke, he is telling her who he is, but she doesn’t see, or refuses to see the red flag.
Through it all, Max isn’t a terribly sympathetic character. You feel for him as he is battered by a dehumanizing system, but it’s clear he is incapable of considering the needs of others until it is too late. The one notable exception to that is a relief, because it shows that Max is not a total monster. It’s mild comfort in a bleak, but engrossing film.
Special features on the disc include a commentary track with Dustin Hoffman and director Ulu Grosbard, the vintage featurette Straight Time: He Wrote It for Criminals, and a trailer.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review.