WOMEN TALKING, LIVING, and TO LESLIE
The January 24 reveal of this year's Oscar nominees brought with it the usual amount of pleasures, disappointments, and surprises, as well as our annual reminder that not every movie voters get to see is one Quad Citians have been able to see. Two of the stragglers, however, managed to secure local releases this past weekend. Another contender has been available for rental and purchase for weeks, but found itself as perhaps the title that Academy Awards completists wanted/needed to catch up with above all others.
Of the pair that hit the cineplex, writer/director Sarah Polley's Women Talking, in the Oscars mix for Best Picture and Adapted Screenplay, is easily the stronger offering. In my view, it's stronger than at least 95 percent of everything released this past year. Adapted from Miriam Toews' 2018 novel that was, in turn, inspired by real-life events in Bolivia, the film is set entirely in a Mennonite colony in an unnamed United States locale, and as the title makes clear, it's all about women talking. Rarely, though, has screen conversation pulsated with this much electricity and force, given that what's being argued about are the Mennonite men who have been systematically drugging and raping the community's women for years – and by women, I mean all females between the ages of 70 and four. After the accused are arrested and the remaining men head into town to provide bail, the women gather to vote on their collective response to the horrific crimes, their options coming down to three: do nothing; stay and fight; or leave. Doing nothing is quickly deemed nonviable, which means either risking the men's daily wrath or venturing into the world without even the abilities to read and write. Another vote is necessary, to be conducted by a group of nine in a hayloft. The situation is dire. The discussion is riveting.
Despite my decades-long Polley fandom and a cast including Rooney Mara, Frances McDormand, Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy, Ben Whishaw (the lone male with a speaking role), and the great, under-seen Judith Ivey, I can't exactly say I was “looking forward” to Women Talking, because, really: Who should want to endure this? Astoundingly, though, this emotionally devastating drama isn't the least bit difficult to sit through. In truth, I didn't want it to end. With her dialogue blending wistful, poetic voice-over and blunt, impassioned prose – plus, unexpectedly, a number of first-rate jokes – Polley and her sublime performers keep your ears and brain buzzing; you feel less like a viewer than an active participant in the women's life-altering struggle. And while the material could easily inspire, or succeed as, a topnotch radio play, this stands as a thoroughly cinematic experience, boasting hauntingly expressive cinematography by Luc Montpellier, an achingly tender score by Hildur Guðnadóttir, and images and sounds I won't soon forget: two bored, giggly pre-teens tying their braids into one combined knot; a desperate mother handling her son via the only means she has left; an out-of-left-field blast of the Monkees' “Daydream Believer.” Its subject matter is wrenching, as are the mercifully brief flashes of the victims' morning-after recognition of their abuse. Yet Women Talking is an exquisitely produced, consistently gripping achievement, and while I won't go so far as to call the movie “fun,” it's been months since I've spent two hours in the dark quite so thrilled to hear other people speak.
Our area's other debuting, Oscar-cited drama was director Olivier Hermanus' Living, which received a Best Actor nod for 73-year-old British legend Bill Nighy, plus Adapted Screenplay mention for Nobel Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro's re-imagining of Akira Kurusawa's Japanese classic Ikiru. Eh, it's okay. The story is simple, telling of a stuffy, repressed English bureaucrat who receives a terminal-cancer diagnosis and decides to live the rest of his life to the fullest, despite being unsure of what, precisely, that might entail. And Hermanus' film isn't without charm. I particularly appreciated the presences of Tom Burke and Aimee Lou Wood (whose overbite makes her distractingly, though not unappealingly, reminiscent of a bunny), and it was certainly a pleasure to see Nighy in a major role that he plays with subtle precision yet no lack of interior emotion.
But wow is this thing slow. While its mid-1950s milieu is presented with obvious care, most of the characters spend Living's two hours acting mildly anesthetized, and you could drive trucking convoys through the dead air as they considered saying something of import or feeling and then decided no, maybe not now. (During one fractured conversation between Wood and Barney Fishwick, the pauses were so pregnant that I found myself muttering “Just get on with it!” – and because I had the auditorium to myself, not at all quietly.) Between the film's trenchant themes and the professionalism of its execution, there's quite a bit to admire here. I just wish admiring it didn't also mean being bored silly.
Both Women Talking and Living were widely predicted Oscar nominees. This year's wholly unpredicted one was director Michael Morris' To Leslie, an indie drama from last fall that found its star Andrea Riseborough among Best Actress contenders following a concerted, staggeringly successful grassroots campaign that took off during the voting period. I won't lie: The saga behind how the nomination happened, and the Academy's current investigation into whether any rules of conduct were violated in the process, is more interesting than the film, which follows an alcoholic Texan and former lottery winner as she attempts, and frequently fails, to rebuild her life. It's a tale that's been told numerous times before, and screenwriter Ryan Binaco doesn't appear to have much to add to the discussion. While his dialogue is solid, the situations are moldy, and there are eyebrow-raising contrivances and unexplained plot turns galore. Why is Marc Maron's motel manager giving the drunken wreck Leslie an all-access pass to his workplace? How does he afford the overhaul of an entire diner when his motel appears conspicuously free of guests?
Still, Morris delivers loads of beautiful long takes and hypnotically slow tracking shots (unlike in Living, the silences here actually say something), with supporting performers Maron, Allison Janney, Stephen Root, and Owen Teague all in expert form. And whether or not the method of getting her there was justifiable, no one who sees To Leslie could conceivably deny Riseborough's deserved inclusion on any Best Actress lineup. This heartbreakingly ravaged, thunderously present portrayal is the hands-down finest among a bunch of sensational turns on the British talent's screen résumé (even her Texan accent is flawless), and she manages to make her title figure fascinating, appalling, tragic, empathetic, deeply moving, and even funny – sometimes all within the confines of a single scene. Every Oscars season needs its scandal, and Riseborough is 2023's. Yet through whatever investigation ensues, I hope Academy officials look at the bigger question at hand: not “How did she get nominated for a movie no one had heard of?”, but rather “Why hadn't we heard about this movie, and this performance, in the first place?”
If you're wary, or perhaps simply weary, of dramatic, low-key Oscar bait, may I direct you instead to Brandon Cronenberg's sci-fi/horror freakout Infinity Pool? May I direct you there regardless? With 2020's exceptional Possessor, it was clear that Cronenberg was following in his dad David's estimable genre footsteps, delivering a tight, imaginative narrative that boasted a mind-blowing premise played absolutely straight, ballsy portrayals (one of them by the Oscars' It Scandal of the moment Andrea Riseborough), and enough Freudian nightmare to give the good doctor himself the shakes. Yet his latest deliriously demented contraption proves that the younger Cronenberg has already crafted a cinematic style distinctly his own, and one that touches on a number of the writer/director's apparently favorite themes. Also his favorite liquids. By my count, blood, sweat, tears, saliva, vomit, and semen all made their requisite appearances, and I stopped keeping track after the movie's first half-hour.
Infinity Pool casts Alexander Skarsgård and Cleopatra Coleman as James and Em Foster, a long-married, long-bored couple hoping to rejuvenate their relationship, or perhaps merely pass the time, at a seaside luxury resort. After making the acquaintance of fellow vacationers Gabi and Albar Bauer (Mia Goth and Jalil Lespert), the foursome ventures beyond the resort's strangely fortified walls and barbed wire for a day at the beach, only to have James, while driving home, crash into and kill a local on a deserted stretch of road. James is consequently arrested, and told that the penalty for such an act, even if accidental, is death, with the punishment exacted by the deceased's first-born son. But the officer interrogating James makes the man an offer: Instead of being killed himself, how would James feel if, for a price, he were to be cloned, and an exact replica – one carrying all of James' memories and emotions – were executed in his place?
Despite the lunacy of the situation, James knows instantly which option he'd prefer, and what results is one blood-soaked existential puzzle after another. What would we do if there were no consequences for even our most obscene actions? Where might our most outlandish fantasies and desires take us? How do we know if we're truly human? (The fact that, following the tit-for-tat demise of James' double, the James we see might actually be the double isn't lost on us, nor on James.) In only his third feature – and I'm ashamed that I still haven't caught up with 2012's Antiviral – Cronenberg already seems to be a master at balancing weighty metaphysical concerns with diabolically outré kicks. And if Infinity Pool isn't quite the across-the-board success that Possessor was, its wicked but fundamentally repetitive progression somewhat petering out by the finale, the film is still a massive amount of nasty fun brandishing unforgettable set pieces. I'd say that Gabi's drunken harangue of James while her car slo-o-owly trails behind him is the grandest one, but really, every scene with new horror icon Goth is sublime; movies will forever be in need of gifted, fearless starlets who will just go there, likability and “relatability” be damned. But the X and Pearl dynamo is surrounded here by grubby pleasures, from the reckless abandon of the resort's other routinely cloned guests to the four or five different fantastic performances Skarsgård provides. Infinity Pool is so grisly, and so unsettling … and I'll so be watching it again.