Sarah is a world-weary, worn and exhausted single mother for whom relief – any relief – couldn’t come any faster at the start of Abner Pastoll’s new clenched-first drama “A Good Woman is Hard to Find”—and that’s not taking into account our introduction as she showers off the blood mysteriously caked on her body. Nor have we yet learned about her husband’s death, the particulars of which remain murky even to her. Sarah has been shaped by circumstance, and she’ll be shaped by circumstance once more; and by the end of Pastoll’s unrelentingly brutal thriller about murderers and motherhood, its actress Sarah Bolger’s remarkable performance that helps the catharsis peek through the carnage.
“Just let sleeping dogs lie,” a police officer tells Sarah when she asks if there’s any new information on her husband’s death. It’s less a response fueled by malice and more a crude suggestion of a world that doesn’t have comfort to offer, whether by economic means or interpersonal ones. Sarah, with eyes that don’t look like they’ve rested in decades, can only respond by shuffling out with her young son and daughter. While Pastoll’s film – written by Ronan Blaney – only scratches the surface of underlying economic anxiety that has fueled a community drug war, the deathly passivity playing out on Bolger’s face in any given scene translates familiar moods of overwhelmed surrender.
There’s a tinge of Nicolas Winding Refn’s uncompromisingly style in the lethality of hammers, the detail-oriented cinematography and also in the propulsive score indicating an inevitable cataclysm. When it does arrive, it walks nonchalantly through Sarah’s front door in the form of a drug dealer, Tito (Andrew Simpson), looking for shelter after ripping off a local crime lord. Circumstance – as well as some narrative contrivance – has made bunkmates with Sarah once again, and cruelty will follow in large doses as she’s unwittingly enveloped into criminal enterprise. She’s about to discover what lies beyond (or beneath) desperation, and Pastoll doesn’t flinch at the plunge.
If the world of “A Good Woman is Hard to Find” is a metaphor for the lack of pity meeting single motherhood halfway, it’s also largely devoid of nuance in its assessments. There’s isn’t a street corner or bedroom that doesn’t feel like an unlit match, and the movie teeters on the edge of full-blown dystopia in the way law and order are nowhere to be found. What should be neighborly faces – a kindly-looking supermarket employee, a pair of cops responding to an outburst of violence Sarah’s home – are revealed to be predatory forces not far removed from the movie’s villain, whose habit of waxing poetic about grammatical accuracy is easy to snicker at until he’s driving hammers into the knees of his victims. The evil in the movie is as unambiguous as any classic horror icon, and that’s Pastoll’s intention; where it’s a bit more subtle is in showing just how claustrophobic Sarah is in any given moment.
The walls eventually close in tight enough to feel like “A Good Woman is Hard to Find” is doing little more than putting Sarah through an endless cycle of cruelty simply because it can. I found myself knocked sideways and a little dubious about the gruesome places that Pastoll goes to—often because they’re arrived at by detouring around common sense, but also because the maximalist approach to Sarah’s evolution from punching bag to puncher drains the screenplay of any real intrigue. In these tales of the downtrodden who resurrect themselves in a blaze of fury and rage, it’s how large the body count ends up being that serves as the only real source of mystery.
And yet Bolger breathes pathos into the fiery resurrection, balancing and enlivening Pastoll’s sleek style with harrowing consequence and the undeniable sensation that we’re watching an evolution before our very eyes. It’s also in the third act that Blaney’s screenplay makes up for feeling like a parody of itself in earlier scenes by focusing tightly – but briefly, and not rigidly – on the fraught relationship between Sarah and her own mother that’s been given fertile new ground for Pastoll’s themes to grow.
The story of “A Good Woman is Hard to Find” is ultimately predictable and its triumphs overtly measured in bloodshed, but the final moments show Sarah shedding her skin in roundabout form. To hell with being a good woman. She’s become something more.
"A Good Woman is Hard to Find" is not rated, though it has all the makings of a hard-R. It's now available on various digital platforms.
Starring: Sarah Bolger, Edward Hogg, Andrew Simpson, Caolan Byrne
Directed by Abner Pastoll