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Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó deserves our thanks for going somewhere very few film-makers want to go: out on a limb. Many a time, his neck has been risked and his arm has been chanced; he makes movies to challenge us. White God (2014) was a Hitchcockian nightmare about a mass uprising among all the dogs in a city, and Jupiter’s Mood (2017) was a fantasy superhero-parable about a Syrian refugee who gets the ability to fly after being shot by an immigration cop.
Most of his movies have been set in Hungary, but this new drama, scripted by Kata Wéber (who also wrote White God and Jupiter’s Moon), is his first English-language film, set in an indeterminate American city (but filmed in Quebec). It’s a vehement, forthright and sometimes unwatchably painful and upsetting emotional drama about the death of a baby; his two stars, Vanessa Kirby and Shia LaBeouf, are at all times giving it upwards of 10,000%, especially Kirby. This is clearly a personally engaged film for its creators; I wanted to admire it and in a sense I do. But there is something self-conscious and hammily plotted about it, once we have got past the real-time ordeal of its terrifying opening scene. There are times when a North American transplant of this European director is unconvincing, and the central situation itself is like a pop-art image rather than the impassioned real thing. We are uncomfortably close to Lars von Trier territory, or maybe Atom Egoyan at his most prescriptive.
Sean (LaBeouf) is a builder working on a bridge whose construction we see very symbolically being completed throughout the drama. He is a rough-around-the-edges, blue-collar kind of guy, but his pregnant partner, Martha (Kirby), comes from a posher background. Her ageing mother, Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn), is a tough woman of Hungarian Jewish background who as a baby escaped the Holocaust, and is now in the first stages of dementia. She disapproves of the oafish Sean and is not so subtly dismayed by the fact of the pregnancy that appears to make his unfortunate union with her daughter permanent. She has also irritated Sean by insisting on buying the couple a pricey family-type people carrier, through the good offices of her car-dealer son-in-law Chris (played by director and actor Benny Safdie).
The moment of birth arrives, and with it a well-meaning midwife called Eva (Molly Parker), a last-minute replacement for one they wanted, but who earnestly takes on board Martha’s desire to have her baby at home. Tragedy strikes like a bolt of lightning, and Kirby shows how Martha goes into a state of shock and unprocessed rage and horror. The film persuasively and sympathetically shows how Sean thinks her decisions after the tragedy amount to an act of self-harm that she will regret, and also depicted how this terrible event has raked up all Elizabeth’s agonised thoughts about what it takes to survive.
But the film also gets bogged down in a lot of frankly inauthentic, silly and jarring plot points involving the existence of Martha’s cousin, a fierce lawyer called Suzanne whom Elizabeth wants to fight for a prosecution and also for compensation: she is played by Sarah Snook (Shiv, from TV’s Succession). This character is sketchily imagined, and the legal case and its courtroom technicalities aren’t convincing.
The movie is at its very best at the (agonising) beginning and also, maybe, at the very end with its enigmatic, almost dream-like scene centred around an apple tree. The physicality of that opening, harrowing sequence is strongly managed: it has drama and compassion. (Interestingly, Susie Orbach is credited as a “technical expert”.) But as for everything in the middle – the people on the screen and their relationships look like high-flown imaginings, far from real life. The film is like an intensively bred hothouse flower that can’t exist in the open air.
• Released on 30 December in cinemas, and on 7 January on Netflix.
Source: The Guardian
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