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Vlad Cioplea/Sundance Institute

MOVIE REVIEW
The World to Come (2021)

Why are so many movies about lesbians historical dramas? For the same reason there are so few movies about writers: Modern lesbianism isn’t cinematic. Nowadays, if a woman is unhappily married, she can just get divorced; she won't starve to death. If someone wants to experiment with their sexuality, it’s no big deal. And if a woman is unsure whether or not she is attracted to the new neighbor lady, she can look up the language she needs to articulate it online. That kind of drama is almost entirely internal, and emotional, which on film is about as interesting as watching a critic write a review.

But back in the day real life had no such easy assists. In 1856, in upstate New York, farmwives were hemmed in by their daily round of chores and responsibilities. The loneliness and isolation is baked into the daily bread. For the marriage of Abigail (Katherine Waterston) and Dyer (Casey Affleck), there is the added complication of grief. As the opening sequence establishes, their only daughter recently died of diphtheria, and they are both staggering in circles of pain and misery, capable of daily survival but little more. But then the large farm down the lane is rented out to a new couple, Finney (Christopher Abbott) and Tallie (Vanessa Kirby). The women notice each other, and the men notice them noticing.

Ron Hansen, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jim Shepard, is the novelist who wrote “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” an incredible document of how isolation and unhappiness can curdle into violence, the movie of which gave Mr. Affleck an extraordinary part. Mr. Hansen also wrote “Mariette in Ecstasy,” about a teenage postulant in upstate New York whose body disrupts the lives of everyone around her. There are few other authors who are able to so sharply convey the mutual dependency of life of the body and the life of the mind; as Abigail puts it “my heart a maelstrom, my head a bedlam.” But their screenplay, along with the direction by Mona Fastvold, cheats in how the story is told, which cuts “The World to Come” off at the knees.

Tallie wears her hair down as if she was still a girl instead of a married woman, an unusual choice for a wife who is not also a mother. The details of her household are only glimpsed, so we never wonder why Tallie has all the time in the world to go visiting in Abigail’s kitchen. The movie makes the same mistake “Call Me by Your Name” did and leans too hard on an actor’s appeal instead of a fleshed-out character. It's weird not only Ms. Kirby is such a mesmerizing presence, but also because, apart from a few brief nightmares, there is nobody but the core four onscreen for over the first hour. By contrast, Abigail is never still; she feeds the hens, milks the cow, kneads the dough, all while Ms. Waterston’s voiceover gives us Abigail’s point of view. Ms. Waterston is superb as a self-aware woman, dulled by grief, too smart for the life she is living, but who hasn't quite given up.

Stranger still is the lack of attention paid to Tallie and Finney’s marriage. As a neighbor, Finney is a pill, but he’s a worse husband, monitoring Tallie’s movements around the house and resorting to violence when she does not suitably perform all her wifely duties. But Tallie has a fondness and respect for Finney, and she seems to simply ignore his stalking and physical abuse of her. The pull they have on each other is a mystery to Abigail, which is one thing, but it shouldn’t be a mystery to us. Mr. Abbott is an unusual actor, full of intelligence that normally presents as menace, as here, and Ms. Kirby could seduce the fishes out of the ocean, but together they are a damp squib. And since the movie is about the competing desires of four very different people, it needed to show us what all four of those people want, and why they can't get it.

The main tragedy here is that Abigail's life is not all bad; she and Dyer knew each other from childhood and have a clear-eyed understanding of each other. Mr. Affleck has somehow developed an unbeatable skill at portraying men silently fighting against their own natures, and his Dyer is able to articulate Abigail’s moods and feelings better than she can. The darkness of their house – with Andre Chemetoff’s cinematography keeping it in shadows, except for their faces – reflects their mood. At Dyer’s suggestion, Abigail keeps a diary as a distraction from her grief. She notes the changing weather, problems with the ordinary round of chores, and then, slowly, her awakening from her despair, and the camera stays close to her for almost the entire film. For the movie to hold back on what is revealed at the end is a childish trick to play, especially when the music by Daniel Blumberg (who also has a small part as the tinker, Jim) is a consistently overbearing narrative tell. These are bewildering directorial choices that dampen the huge shock of the final scene; it's a devastating betrayal, and if the movie had shown us the truth sooner we would have felt it with all its power. As it is, it's a strangely immature cheat.

It’s peculiar these mistakes exist in a film about a woman discovering, and articulating her discovery of, her capacity for love. The ending further begs the question as to why this movie was made as a period piece. Ours is a time where grief is such a taboo that the lack of support from others can swallow the grieving whole. The knowledge that marriage is a choice, instead of the only method of economic survival for women, can trap people, because the trap has not been set by society, but by themselves. A film about two married women blindsided by a mutual attraction, but consumed by various instabilities and anxieties, could be set in upstate New York this minute. Is the future not happening right now?

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