Tag Archives: Haley Bennett

Dear White People

Hillbilly Elegy

by Hope Madden

I can’t say I’m a big Ron Howard fan. I find his films safe and sentimental. But I’d certainly say they were all competently made.

Until today.

What the hell is going on with Hillbilly Elegy?

Howard’s adaptation of J.D. Vance’s memoir does boast the one-two punch of perennial Oscar contenders Amy Adams and Glenn Close. Adams plays Vance’s unstable mother, Beverly. It’s less a character than a collection of outbursts, so I can’t even say whether she’s good.

Close, as Vance’s beloved Mamaw, gets more opportunity to carve out an actual character. But like everything else in the film, Mamaw exists in snippets to illustrate the Middletown, Ohio chains J.D. needs to break.

The main story is of law student J.D. (Gabriel Basso) trying to land summer employment at a firm so he can afford Yale next year. His mother overdoses on heroin just days before his interview. Can he get to Ohio, sort that out, and still make it back to Connecticut in time? Or will he be forever waylaid by all the hyperventilating, acid washed jeans, scrunchies and hysterics that populate his flashbacks?

Howard’s characters don’t show us much, but they do tell us a lot of things. J.D. tells us his mother is the smartest person he’s ever met. We never see even a glimpse of that, so we’ll have to take him at his word. He also tells us twice that he will do whatever it takes to make sure his mother gets the help she needs.

That’s supposed to be the heart of the story. Does there come a time when you have to put yourself first? Is it ever wrong to sacrifice yourself for your family?

Too bad Howard, working from a screenplay by Vanessa Taylor, can’t find that heartbeat.

Flashbacks do little to differentiate J.D. (played in youth by Owen Asztalos) from the others who can look forward to a life of “food stamps or jail.”

Never does the film see J.D. as possessing any privileges that may make success easier for him than for his grandmother, mother, or sister (Haley Bennett). Nope. J.D. just worked harder.

The reason Howard’s film seems like it refuses to say anything, which gives it the feel of a poorly pieced together puzzle, is that it says two things simultaneously. 1) Redneck is a term elitists use to make themselves feel superior to perfectly valuable people. 2) If rednecks worked hard enough, they could go to Yale and stop being rednecks.

Save a Prayer

The Devil All the Time

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

“Lord knows where a person who ain’t saved might end up.”

Indeed. The constant fight to overcome the worst in ourselves lies at the heart of The Devil All the Time, director Antonio Campos’s darkly riveting realization of Donald Ray Pollock’s best-selling novel.

Bookended by the close of World War II and the escalation in Vietnam, the film connects the fates of various characters living in the small rural towns of Southern Ohio and West Virginia.

Arvin (Tom Holland), the son of a disturbed WWII vet (Bill Skarsgård), fights to protect his sister (Eliza Scanlen) while he ponders his future. Husband and wife serial killers (Jason Clarke and Riley Keough) look for hitchhikers to degrade, photograph and murder. A new small town preacher (Robert Pattinson) displays a special interest in the young girls of his congregation.

It’s a star studded affair—Mia Wasikowska, Haley Bennett and Sebastian Stan joining as well—but every actor blends into the woodsy atmosphere with a sense of unease that permeates the air. No stars here, all character actors in service of the film’s unsettling calling.

Pollock’s prose created a dizzyingly bleak landscape where Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy might meet to quietly ponder man’s inhumanity to man. Campos unlocks that world courtesy of Pollock himself, who narrates the film’s depravity with a backwoods folksiness that makes it all the more chilling.

As rays of light are constantly snuffed out by darkness, Campos (who also co-wrote the screenplay) uses Pollock’s voice and contrasting soundtrack song choices to create a perverse air of comfort.

Redemption is a slippery aim in and around Knockemstiff, Ohio, and grace is even harder to come by. With a heavier hand, this film would have been a savage beating or a backwoods horror of the most grotesque kind. Campos and his formidable ensemble deliver Pollock’s tale with enough understatement and integrity to cut deeply, unnerving your soul and leaving a well-earned scar.

Food for Thought

Swallow

by Hope Madden

Like Todd Haynes’s 1995 film Safe, Swallow shadows a lovely homemaker with little of merit to occupy her time who eventually falls prey to an unusual malady.

Dressed like something out of a 1950s pantyhose ad, Hunter (a transfixing Haley Bennett) fluffs pillows, prepares dinner, and waits for her husband Richie (Austin Stowell) to come home from work. She’s so grateful. Just really thankful, she nods in a hushed, respectful, humble tone.

You might think that pregnancy would give Hunter something meaningful to do with her time: prepare the nursery, read up on parenting, that sort of thing. But the only thing she really wants to do now is to swallow things she shouldn’t.

Putting a relevant twist on the classic “horrific mother” trope, writer/director Carlo Mirabella-Davis uses the rare eating disorder pica to anchor his exploration of gender dynamics and, in particular, control.

At times almost Hitchcockian in its suspense, anxiety and balance of gender hysterics, Swallow feels urgently present but simultaneously old-fashioned. The costume choices, the vacant expression Hunter wears like a mask, the way she smooths and tucks her hair—all of it rings with the tone of the dementedly June Cleaver-esque.  

Where Mirabella-Davis’s talent for building tension and framing scenes drive the narrative, it’s Bennett’s performance that elevates the film. Serving as executive producer as well as star, Bennett transforms over the course of the film.

The path Swallow takes is eerily, sometimes frustratingly similar to Haynes’s Safe. Both films cover similar themes, both take on a meticulously crafted visual aesthetic, and both boast incandescent lead performances. Indeed, Bennett here is every ounce as believable and touching and transfixing as the great Julianne Moore as Haynes’s brittle heroine.

But where Haynes played things a little too ambiguously to satisfy an audience, Mirabella-Davis embraces clarity—although first he flirts and then dances with it before the full bear hug. The first half of this film is almost sleight of hand, the filmmaker telegraphing imagery too meticulous and obvious.

When things finally burst, though, director and star shake off the traditional storytelling, the Yellow Wallpaper or Awakening or even Safe. The filmmaker’s vision and imagery come full circle with a bold conclusion worthy of Bennett’s performance.

Train in Vain

The Girl on the Train

by Hope Madden

Not every book makes for a good movie – not even those page turners that seem cinematic as you read them.

Paula Hawkins’s insanely popular novel The Girl on the Train, for instance, had the feel of a pulpy film noir from the get go. Unfortunately, director Tate Taylor (The Help, Get On Up) can’t deliver on that promise.

Emily Blunt does, though. As the titular traveler – a vodka-addled protagonist of the most unreliable sort – her performance is as frustrating, sympathetic and confused as it needs to be to sell the sordid tale.

Rachel (Blunt) lives vicariously through the couple she passes twice daily on her commute. So fortunate they’re always home – on the porch, in the yard, or conveniently screwing just inside the window. How lovely they are. How vibrant.

Of course, some of this could be the overactive imagination of a very lonely woman who’s really diverting her own attention away from the house two doors down. The one that used to be hers, with the husband that used to be hers, along with his new wife and baby.

Yes, her imagination gets her into lots of trouble. That and her blackouts.

Taylor, with the help of screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson, takes a stab at shifting the points of view of the three female leads – Rachel, her ex’s new wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), and that dreamy neighbor Megan (Haley Bennett, who is everywhere right now).

Only Blunt manages to keep your attention, though. Bennett and Ferguson are saddled with one-dimensional props for characters: misty eyed sexpot and brittle housewife, respectively. What should be an intriguing mystery soaked in the criss-crossing perspectives of three damaged women becomes a character study kept in motion by lifeless cogs.

Not that their male counterpoints fare any better. Taylor wastes Luke Evans and Edgar Ramirez with broadly drawn stereotypes, though Justin Theroux gets to chew a little scenery.

It’s impossible to watch this film without longing for David Fincher (Gone Girl, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), whose proven that dark chick lit can create undeniably watchable cinema. Like Rachel’s own window on the world, Taylor’s film is little more than a bleary mess.

Verdict-2-0-Stars