Some of the year’s best screen acting is on display this week in otherwise disparate films that range from fact-based docudrama (two of ‘em) to black comedy, camp extravaganza, and more.
“Black comedy” is an oversimplification in describing The Banshees of Inisherin, though it comes to mind because this latest from Martin McDonagh feels very much of a piece with his prior films (and plays), as well as the overlapping terrain of his brother John Michael McDonagh’s films (Calvary, The Guard)—all of which fit that category. I’ve actually preferred JM’s movies, at least sometimes.
Martin’s In Bruges was fun, but his Seven Psychopaths was wannabe-Tarantino wankery, and the overrated Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was a classic case of “foreign talent spends a little time in the US, thinks he knows ‘what the problem with America is.’” Banshees is more like his stage plays, though—very Irish, anecdotal, funny in a grotesque way bordering on outright horror.
A hundred years ago on an island off the mainland, though close enough that residents can see/hear “The Troubles’” artillery fire across the water, Padraic (Colin Farrell) is a bachelor dairyman living with spinster sister Siobhan (Kerry Condon), their parents long gone. She is keenly aware of what she’s missing out on in this insular hamlet. But he’s a simple soul, contented with his lot—until, that is, older best mate Colm (Brendan Gleeson) inexplicably ignores him one day. Pressed, Colm simply says “I don’t like you no more.” Pressed further, he explains “I just don’t have a place for dullness in me life anymore.”
And Padraic is dull, in the nicest (but also chattiest, time-wastingest) way. Colm is a traditional folk musician and composer who’s decided any moment not spent chasing immortality in his art is a dead loss. Ergo he wants Padraic to stop bothering him—something scarcely possible; this community is so small.
That’s all there is to Banshees: The abrupt, hard end of a friendship. It’s a story hook so elemental you might marvel how seldom it’s been done before, at least sans “explanatory” complications. (Colm may well have mental health issues that factor in, but this isn’t a time or place in which such notions were discussed.) Padraic is inconsolable, reduced to hanging out with the de facto village idiot (Barry Keoghan, who’s quite extraordinary). He cannot accept Colm’s decision—even when the latter underlines its seriousness with acts that are quite harrowing.
Both McDonaghs are the kinds of writers whose cleverness is genuine but also show-offy, like they wouldn’t bother if not certain of a gold star. But this pared-down narrative brings out the best in Martin’s sardonic yet empathetic sensibility, while his direction is faultless, every element finely weighed from the very handsome (but not excessively prettified) location photography to Carter Burwell’s plaintive score. The characters resemble Irish archetypes, but are rich nonetheless, and superbly played—Farrell, in particular, reminds that he is one of those actors with a special affinity for the not-so-bright, which he can render credibly “dull” yet far from boring. Like the miniature donkey he dotes on, Padraic is a creature of very elemental needs and immense loyalty, whose braying when denied that basic fodder can break your heart.
There’s nothing simple about the life of New Jersey medical professional Amy Loughren (Jessica Chastain), even before she makes an acquaintance that greatly complicates it further in The Good Nurse. She’s struggling to support two young daughters as a single parent; working in a hospital, she has some significant medical issues herself, but hasn’t been there long enough to qualify for employee health insurance. She’s a wonderful caregiver whose human touch is often frowned upon by bottom-line-oriented administration. Ergo she’s very happy to meet the seemingly like-minded Charlie Cullen (Eddie Redmayne), a new hire with the same empathic approach.
But this Charlie—whose real-life equivalent is currently in prison for 29 homicides that may in fact number closer to 400—raises some red flags even as he insinuates himself into Amy’s life. ICU patients who appeared on the mend start suddenly dying. After one such instance, the police (Noah Emmerich, Nnamdi Asomugha) start a routine investigation, only to have their suspicions raised further by the hospital’s defensive stonewalling. Why does every medical facility Charlie was ever employed at (there are a lot) refuse to discuss him? Did they suspect foul play, but simply didn’t want the legal liability? Once these detectives and Amy dig deeper, they discover a trail of not-so-merciful killings that should’ve been halted long before.
This is the first US film by Dane Tobias Lindholm, who directed the excellent docu-style dramas A Hijacking and A War, and also wrote fine Mads Mikkelsen vehicles The Hunt and Another Round. His affinity for fact-based stories is a given. But it is no small thing that his ability to sink deep into an institutional or cultural milieu, as well as draw exceptionally convincing performances, translates so well to an American production.
Chastain got her Oscar last year for The Eyes of Tammy Faye, a much more flamboyant performance. This comparatively low-key turn is even better, for my money. Likewise, Redmayne (who got his own little gold man as Stephen Hawking in 2014’s The Theory of Everything) is very subdued… though when Cullen’s veneer finally cracks, the volcano glimpsed beneath is terrifying. More a close-up witness character study than a thriller, The Good Nurse is about as good as true-crime cinema gets. It’s currently playing limited theaters, and streaming on Netflix.
Three new films from women directors also offer some terrific roles to very talented actors. Phyllis Nagy’s Call Jane is a fictionalization of the story also told this year in documentary The Janes (now on HBO Max), about the days just pre-Roe v. Wade when a group of Chicago women organized a secret underground network to provide the safe abortions that were then against the law. The always-welcome Elizabeth Banks plays Joy, a suburban housewife whose awareness of the issue becomes acute when she suffers potentially terminal pregnancy complications that no hospital will treat. (One doctor’s office tells her “Just fall down a staircase.”)
Joy discovers an alternative already exists to the furtive filthy operations in “bad neighborhoods,” one operated by pseudononymous “Janes” played by Sigourney Weaver, Kate Mara, Aida Turturro and others. Soon she is not just a past client, but an organizer filled with messianic zeal.
Her radicalization follows a somewhat simplistic path in a movie that’s something of a formulaic crowdpleaser. But it works, downplaying the more obvious inspirational-uplift notes in favor of gently comedic ones, drawing on Banks’ relatable, winning star turn as well as an excellent support cast. Needless to say, Call Jane is relevant in ways its makers surely hoped wouldn’t come to pass when they started this project: Now we really are turning back the clock a half-century, to an era before “choice.” This movie reminds just how perilous that reality was. It opens Fri/28 at the Metreon and CGV multiplexes in SF, plus other theaters around the Bay Area.
Contrastingly opaque is Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun, a debut feature that’s won a great deal of critical praise whose enthusiasm I can’t quite share. In the 1990s, 11-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio) goes on a holiday with her father Calum (Paul Mescal). to a Turkish resort obviously catering to British families. He is divorced from her mother, and evidently does not see his only child often, so this is a dual sojourn both welcome and a little awkward.
Working in a style of psychological nuance and elliptical narrative that strongly recalls fellow Scot Lynne Ramsay’s films, Wells does assured work, and gets very good performances from her two main actors. But while Aftersun’s plotlessness isn’t dull, it is cryptic to an exasperating extent. We find out almost nothing about these characters’ shared past, why the marriage ended, what Calum is doing now, what failures or frustrations he’s found crying over in one late scene.
There are also strobe-cut sequences interspersed throughout that show an adult Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall) apparently still haunted by this damaged-by-implication parental relationship…but they tell us even less. Wells does very well evoking subtle tensions. Still, 100 minutes of vaguely hinting at issues the film is far too discreet to reveal made for a slice-of-life drama more affected than affecting, in my book. Aftersun opens Fri/28 at the AMC Kabuki 8.
In another universe entirely is the riot of anti-naturalistic high melodrama as pure abstraction that is Please Baby Please. This singular phantasmagoria from Amanda Kramer (Ladyworld, Paris Window) is a bizarre, quasi-musical fantasia in hues of magenta and neon blue, landing somewhere between Crybaby and Querelle. It begins with a West Side Story send-up, then turns things over to Andrea Riseborough’s Suze, a John Waters-worthy figure of Beatnik Chick nihilism living on a soundstage Lower East Side circa 1955. Harry Melling from the Harry Potter films is her unsuitably peaceniky husband Arthur, a “sensitive, artistic” type who becomes attracted to biker boy Teddy (Karl Glusman). Meanwhile, Suze gets interested in a mysterious upstairs neighbor (Demi Moore).
Kramer’s Gender Studies whatsit is a major self-indulgence, but just distinctive and amusingly performed enough to get away with its mannered eccentricity. While no awards-giving body (aside from maybe GLAAD) would likely come anywhere near it, the fearless Riseborough gives another knockout performance—one as different from her turn in To Leslie (reviewed earlier this month) as could be imagined, yet equally dynamic and immersive. Please Baby Please opens Fri/28 at Alamo Drafthouse.