After Hours is a very interesting Martin Scorsese film that doesn’t feel like a Martin Scorsese film and one finds it a little hard to believe that it was actually made by him. It’s so different from everything he had made up to that point. But at the same time, if you look at the last couple of films he made prior to this, you admit to yourself that he is very much capable of making something like this. He had actually planned to make The Last Temptation of Christ but once Paramount delayed its production, Scorsese had no other option but to focus on much smaller and lighter independent films such as this.
He made The King of Comedy – a darkly humorous satire on celebrity worship – the previous year and one could see how making After Hours might’ve seemed like a walk in the park for him. The seeds had been already planted in that one and now all he had to do was add a bit of surrealism and the absurd into the mix. This is the sort of film that Luis Bunuel would get a kick out of. There is a film of Bunuel called The Exterminating Angel in which the guests of a mansion find themselves unable to leave. The protagonist of After Hours, Paul (Griffin Dunne), finds himself in a similar predicament. No matter how hard he tries, he is unable to get to his home and get a good night’s sleep.
Working as a word processor teaching new trainees at a Manhattan office, Paul is eager to find a way out of his monotonous existence. He seeks to spice up his life with some adventure and new experiences. He gets more than he bargained for when he strikes up a conversation with a woman named Marcy (Rosanna Arquette) in a coffee shop. Every single situation that Paul is thrust into from there on resembles a nightmare and doesn’t make sense neither to Paul nor us (in a good way). I think most of what happens in the film could either be a nightmare or a hallucination. But it is possible to figure out their possible implications if one is willing to look harder. The film is supposed to be a comedy but it doesn’t evoke any laughs. However, you might see the humor if you try to imagine yourself in Paul’s place.
Some critics have pointed out that the film represents the chaos of New York City itself. As I’m not an American, I tried to look at it from a psychological point of view. I felt that every weird character and situation that Paul encounters is a representation of some of the fears that reside in the male psyche, especially relating to heterosexuals. Every woman that Paul meets behaves in an extremely strange manner and makes him feel trapped. He feels claustrophobic around them and wants to escape from their presence as fast as he can. In addition to that, he is worried about other things as well, like a woman having scars on her body or having an abusive boyfriend. He seems to have some deep-seated issues when it comes to women.
One of these women has several mouse traps planted around her bed and when a mouse eventually gets trapped in one of these, Paul sees himself in it. To make matters worse, she tries to gift him something that she brought from a woman he met earlier that night. And towards the end, Paul feels like everyone is out to get him. He feels persecuted. When he is mistaken for a robber and chased endlessly by members of the neighborhood watch, he begins to fear for his life. It seemed to me that this particular situation signifies the anxieties that he experiences every day in his waking life. Every nook and corner he turns to bring out some fear or the other in him. There is also an implication that Paul is intimidated by certain kinds of men and see them as threats to his sexuality.
David Fincher would explore a similar subject matter in his 1997 film The Game starring Michael Douglas. What Douglas’ character goes through that is much more intense. And Tom Cruise experiences something similar in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. You get to see here some of the themes that were present in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Paranoia is one of them. In both films, it drives the protagonist crazy. When Paul tries to explain his terrible ordeal to others, his behavior resembles that of those strange women he ran away from earlier. Many portions of After Hours were shot in locations close to where Scorsese grew up. Apparently, Scorsese incorporated some of his own anxieties (triggered by the production troubles of The Last Temptation of Christ) into the script, which was written by Joseph Minion.