Fascinating roles for women marked with dazzling performances by Annette Bening, Naomi Watts, Kerry Washington (Mother & Child), Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone), and their supporting casts converge in two new films. Michael Douglas gives a gripping performance in Solitary Man rivaling his work in the sleeper Wonder Boys, while art and politics find uneasy union in artist Shirin Neshat's first film, Women Without Men about the 1953 coup in Iran.
Mother & Child--written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia best known for directing HBO's beloved series, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, and In Treatment--is cathartic and painstakingly well cast film. From starring roles to cameos, the actors--tapped from the best that independent film, theater, and television have to offer--coalesce to form an extraordinary ensemble. Audiences may not be familiar with every name, but they will recognize the glowing performances of Bening, Watts, and Washington joined by Samuel L. Jackson, S. Epatha Merkerson, Cherry Jones, Jimmy Smits, Eileen Ryan, Shareeka Epps, Lisa Gay Hamilton, David Morse, Amy Brenneman, Elipidia Carrillo, and Simone Lopez.
While the screenplay's structure may strike some as transparent, the story following the transgenerational trauma of loss and longing (embodied by teen pregnancy, forced adoption, and random infertility) is riveting. It reveals the wonder of the mother/child dyad--no matter how threatened by aging, infertility, or death--that remains a resilient force. Merkerson's Ada won't abandon Washington's Lucy even when she vehemently disagrees with her life choices. Ada steps up to mother her and her newly adopted baby when crisis ensues. Karen's (Bening's) devotion to her mother and love for her daughter transcend perceived rejection and death. These relationships also live on in unusual twists of mentorship and grandmotherhood.
Mother & Child is very much Garcia's film, but the tragic touch of executive producer Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (21 Grams, Amores Perros) is palpable. Though the characters written for Smits and Jackson are compelling, Garcia speculates the enigma that "my women characters have been more complex than [the] men" may have freed him "to write about emotional subjects more emotionally."
If authentic portrayals of fierce attachment indicate artistic success and connecting with what moves audiences in a time of uncertainty and isolation, then Mother & Child may be a critical and popular victory.
Winter's Bone--director/co-writer, Debra Granik, and actress, Jennifer Lawrence, whose work I barely knew--was a revelation. This unusual story--adapted from Daniel Woodrell's novel in which 17-year-old Ree Dolly is the unlikely, but convincing heroine--takes us to the spooky, Ozark backwoods. To save her impoverished and helpless family from homelessness, Ree must find her father, a meth-addicted criminal. Dad, having used the decrepit home and land as collateral for his bail bond, has vanished.
This film about family survival is shocking at times in terms of the violence it portrays, but remains respectful about the region's culture. It never turns away from the theme about the brutality of poverty and its resultant climate of crime, drug addiction, and subjugation. In a pre-production and shooting process that drew from the principles of anthropology and the canons of cinematic art, Granik and her crew got to know the people of southern Missouri. In close collaboration with the novel's author and his wife, they met musicians, vocalists, folklorists, scholars, and others immersed in Ozark culture.
Their painstaking efforts transformed this film into something that supersedes the enigma of Deliverance, rivals some of the themes in The Grapes of Wrath, and evokes the memorable, heart-wrenching images of photographer Dorothea Lange.
Jennifer Lawrence's sublime performance as Ree is supported by the talented, veteran character actors John Hawkes (Teardrop) and Dale Dickey (Merab), the debuts of Isiah Stone and Ashlee Thompson playing the young brother and sister, and cameos by Marideth Sisco--a Southern Missouri folklorist serving as the music advisor--as a singer and other natives playing gifted musicians. From performance to music and dialogue to mise-en-scene, if Winter's Bone struck any false notes, I was too captivated to notice.
In Solitary Man, co-directed by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, Michael Douglas plays middle-aged Ben Kalman whose girlfriends (Mary-Louise Parker, among others) get younger and younger after he divorces Nancy (Susan Sarandon), his college sweetheart. Following this impulsive act, Ben's success wanes and his business goes belly up. His often offensive behavior (comments about women's post-40 bodies and refusing to admit he's a--"Shh!"--grandfather) should make us hate him, yet Douglas finds the humanity in Ben. He runs faster and faster getting nowhere in maintaining denial about his mortality. Hubris is transformed into humility as Ben as slings hash with Jimmy Merino (Danny DeVito), his friend who remained in the college town of their youth.
Besides admirable supporting performances by Sarandon and Parker, look for charming screen moments by Jesse Eisenberg, Olivia Thirlby, Imogene Poots, and Jenna Fischer. In spite of all the wonderful support, Douglas is the shining star evoking the charm of Grady Tripp in Curtis Hanson's Wonder Boys.
Turn to Women Without Men to experience the visual splendor of Iranian-born Shirin Neshat in collaboration with partner Shoja Azari (a man whose current art exhibit was described as wreaking with subversive feminism). Neshat's first feature won her the Venice Film Festival's Golden Lion for directing. Ultra-sharp focus and other magic realism elements come off as more sophisticated than the uneven acting and rough dialogue co-written with Azari. The film was inspired by the novel by Shahrnush Parsipur (who has a cameo as the Tehran brothel's madam) banned by Islamic censors in 2004 (not for politics but depictions of losses of female virginity).
The film's story revolves around four contrasting women who live in 1953 Iran: Faezeh, a middle-aged woman in a loveless marriage; Zarin, a prostitute ravaged by the inhumanity of the brothel; Munis, a budding radical, unmarried and pushing thirty, an embarrassment to her traditional brother; and Fakhri, a devout woman secretly in love with Munis's brother until she is raped for nothing more than looking into a male-only cafe.
Neshat brought politics into greater prominence in her narrative about the Anglo-American backed military coup that ousted democratically elected, prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh--who dared to nationalize the oil industry under British control--from office reinstating the Shah, a brutal dictator replete with secret police.
Faezeh leaves her powerful husband, purchases a home in an orchard that becomes her haven (and symbol for heaven and freedom), and welcomes Zarin and Fakhri. Meanwhile, Munis, once living only for the inspirational political reports on her radio sequestered in her brother's home frees herself in death as part spirit and part freedom fighter working with idealistic young communists who try to stop the coup. The film is also laced with Persian and Islamic mysticism, and the women serve as an allegory for a once peaceful, naive, and later, exploited nation.
Neshat's passion to reveal accurate, historic circumstances weighs down some of the Women Without Men's narrative, but the extraordinary images that reflect Persian ideals and the painless history lesson are worth giving into. The film's message that Mossadegh's anti-British policies (limited to regaining control of its oil) might have been a more peaceful scenario than 26 years under the Shah giving rise to today's reactionary, repressive Islamic Republic of Iran may be a bitter pill for some Westerners to swallow.