Dustin Hoffman plays Willy, an ageing salesman down on his luck as his job is threatened and he has to support his layabout grown-up sons Biff and Happy (John Malkovich and Stephen Land). The film takes place over about 24 hours, and shows the senile old man dealing with his family as he drifts in and out of hallucinations from his past.
Originally a play, its few locations and focused human drama make this, first and foremost, a story about people. One of Hoffman’s great strengths as an actor is creating sympathetic, vulnerable, well meaning characters, which he does to perfection here, against his sons who appear ungrateful and unhelpful.
Yet as it goes on we begin to see the character’s flaws, and how the family’s well intentioned secrets from one another cause more problems than they solve. The only truly blameless character is Willy’s long suffering wife, Linda, played superbly by Kate Reid.
The film looks as Willy’s aspirations, and how these are projected onto his two sons. With his job as a salesman, this film is about what happens when a man takes the role of sales too seriously, and what results when the tantalising, money-driven industry throws people away when they cease to be profitable.
The job has been sold to Willy as he sells to his customers, and can never meet his aspirations. Yet it’s only after 35 years of loyal service that he can come to terms with this fact. Not only this, but it looks at modern masculinity, as Biff would prefer to be working outdoors to in an office, and Willy struggles to provide for his family. It’s also sensitive look at mental illness in film, even though what Willy is suffering from is never precisely defined.
This drama is brilliantly well acted, with its strong performances and clever storytelling making it a classic film.