Phantom Thread

Daniel Day-Lewis has never seemed particularly enamoured with acting as a career and has certainly never shown any interest in the trappings that come with the level of success he has achieved as a performer. With three Academy Awards and a slew of other accolades across a career spanning 30+ years, Day-Lewis is indisputably one of the finest actors of his generation and if, as he has declared, Phantom Thread is his last acting role, he leaves the industry having delivered some of the most iconic characters in contemporary cinema, from real-life figures such as cerebral palsy-afflicted artist Christy Bown (My Left Foot) and falsely imprisoned IRA suspect Gerry Conlon, to characters based on historical figures such as Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting in Gangs of New York or completely fictional constructs such as Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence or Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, which was Day-Lewis’ first collaboration with director Paul Thomas Anderson. Day-Lewis has never shied away from playing unlikeable characters and with Phantom Thread, he teams again with Anderson to bring us Reynolds Woodcock, a fashion designer whose considerable talents are only outweighed by his arrogance and lack of consideration for others.

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Set in the couture world of 1950’s London, Woodcock is a self-absorbed, yet revered, designer and dress maker whose genius allows him to get away with being an asshole, protected from all manner of inconvenience and irritation by his sister/assistant Cyril (Lesley Manville), who panders to is petty demands and peculiarities. Unless you regard his talent as such, there are no redeeming features in Woodcock, which does make it difficult to understand why unassuming waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps) finds herself unable to extract herself from his orbit when it becomes evident what a contemptible personality he possesses. Of course, initially he is all charm and charisma in his efforts to woo Alma, but it isn’t long before his narcissism and numerous neuroses take control of their relationship. As Alma begins to challenge his oppressively structured way of living, Reynolds responds by growing more controlling towards her and behaving in a manner that suggests he is ready to find a new muse, forcing Alma to take action in a bid to protect her place within his world which, quite frankly, seems the lesser of two evils if the other option is getting the hell out of the relationship altogether.

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Anderson, who also wrote the screenplay, makes no attempt to give Reynolds a redemptive narrative arc and his worst character traits are tempered only by Alma’s manipulations, rather than as a result of any conscious effort on his part to be a better human being. Day-Lewis makes easy work of his character and with Krieps more than a match for her acclaimed co-star, it surely won’t be long before Hollywood comes calling for the 34-year-old from Luxembourg. Having built a reputation as an auteur of the highest order, Anderson also served as cinematographer on Phantom Thread and drew on a variety of techniques and lens technologies to create a look for the film that better reflects the way it might look if filmed at the time in which the story is set. Anderson wanted to ‘dirty up’ the image to avoid having the finished product present as something altogether too pristine, an approach that, when combined with the period detailing and the way some scenes are shot – such as the driving sequences – makes for an aesthetically authentic experience.

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A master at exposing the hidden impulses of human behaviour, Anderson has eight feature films under his belt and is yet to make a dud and, while Phantom Thread is not his most astounding piece of work (that honour would probably go to Magnolia or maybe Boogie Nights or perhaps The Master…), it still stands tall above so much of the schlock that somehow finds its way onto cinema screens. The film explores ideas about how memory and emotion control behaviour, as well as the dynamic between artist and muse, combining elements of gothic romance with a psychological thriller whilst taking a satirical swipe at male artists and their toxic behaviour. Narratively, this is perhaps Anderson’s most straightforward film thus far, relying very much on the performances from the two leads to keep the audience engaged and, if this does ultimately prove to be Day-Lewis’ swansong, it certainly does nothing to diminish his legacy as one of the most gifted performers ever to grace a cinema screen.

 

 

 

Sweet Country

After the international acclaim that (quite rightfully) came his way upon the release of Samson and Delilah in 2009, any subsequent directorial outing for Warwick Thornton was always going to garner plenty of interest, both from those desperate to declare his debut a mere fluke and from those genuinely excited to see what he would do next. Perhaps not surprisingly, with Sweet Country Thornton again explores the Aboriginal experience, although this time he tackles the issue from a historical perspective. Set in the Northern Territory in the 1920’s where Aboriginal people are subjected to overt racism and mistreatment – including cruelty and acts of violence – at the hands of the white farmers for whom they toil, Thornton has gathered a strong cast that includes Sam Neill, Bryan Brown, Matt Day and Ewen Leslie, but it is the non-professional Hamilton Morris around whom the action revolves as Sam Kelly, an Aboriginal man who finds himself at the mercy of white justice following an incident that left another man dead.

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The first section of the film requires considerable focus from the audience as three remote cattle stations and their owners are introduced in quick succession. Fred Smith (Neill) is a devout Christian rancher who has developed a strong friendship with Kelly, who works as the head stockman on Smith’s property. On a neighbouring station, Mick Kennedy (Thomas M Wright) is more of a tyrant in his relationship with his indigenous workers, often unleashing on them for the most minor indiscretions, his violence masking the loneliness that such isolation invariably brings. As repulsive as Kennedy’s behaviour is, he is moderate in his malevolence when compared to newly arrived rancher Harry March (Leslie) who relies on alcohol to cope with the trauma of his experiences in World War 1 that continue to haunt him. With no workers of his own, March approaches Smith with a request to borrow some ‘black stock’ to help set-up his property. Kelly and his wife Lizzie are dispatched to assist, however Harry’s racist, sadistic treatment towards Kelly and other workers he has secured from Kennedy – including an act of sexual violence against Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber) – results in Sam and Lizzie returning home. When Harry tracks them down, more violence ensues and Sam now finds himself on the run from weathered Police Chief Sergeant Fletcher (Brown).

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Whilst this is just one story, it is a powerful window into the terrible cost for Aboriginal people at the hand of the Anglo-Saxon invaders. As Sam and Lizzie roam the outback, their Western dress and pidgin English makes them foreigners to the other native Australians they encounter along the way, yet they have also been rejected by the community that is taking away their land, their health and their rights. This is muscular storytelling but lacks the nuance and subtlety and, dare I say, the emotional power of Thornton’s previous film. Sure, it reminds us of what so many of the Aboriginal population had to endure through this shameful period of history, but I can’t help but feel as though Thornton is preaching to the converted.

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Thornton also served as cinematographer, as he did on Samson and Delilah and projects for other filmmakers such as Radiance (Rachel Perkins, 1988) and The Sapphires (Wayne Blair, 2012) and this is definitely where his strength lies because this looks fabulous, capturing the brutality and beauty of the Australian outback in equal measure. Written by Steven McGregor and David Tranter, Sweet Country is a simple, yet powerful story in which small traces of humanity emerge from amidst the hostility and hardship that permeates the desolate Australian outback.

I, Tonya

There are a lot of frustrations to endure in watching I, Tonya, but the hardest to bear is without doubt the fact that Australian director Craig Gillespie, in cahoots with writer Steven Rogers, has painted disgraced ice skater Tonya Harding as much a victim, if not more so, than the rival whose beating she helped orchestrate. It is a very strange move by Gillespie and it is one that builds to an almost unbearable level of disbelief as the director rams home the notion that Harding has somehow been dealt a bad hand in the wake of the events that saw Nancy Kerrigan attacked during the 1994 US Figure Skating Championships in Detroit. It is a version of events that is in complete contrast to the realities of what took place and Harding’s role in it. Make no mistake, Margot Robbie is fantastic in the lead role and Allison Janney is also terrific as Tonya’s deranged mother, but their performances alone cannot mask the lack of objectivity that flies in the face of everything we already know about what transpired.

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Gillespie weaves his fanciful fable through multiple aesthetic filters; mockumentary one moment, narrative drama the next, interwoven with historical footage that includes TV news coverage of the case and deposition testimony from some of those involved. Whereas the mockumentary style can be brilliantly effective in telling a story that, whilst drawing influences from real life characters and events (such as This is Spinal Tap), is a completely fictional construct, it is simply not as convincing in this instance, largely because it is an examination of real events about people with whom we are already quite familiar. Perhaps the intention was that the disjointed manner in which the film is put together would serve as a metaphor for Harding’s tumultuous, chaotic life that came within a whisker of running off the rails on several occasions before the fateful day that put her in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

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Yes, Harding endured a miserable childhood at the hand of her abusive mother LaVona and subsequently entered into a marriage with the unstable Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) that was mired in domestic violence and emotional upheavals that did make her significant achievements – the first American woman to successfully execute a Triple Axel and one of only nine women in history to complete the jump in competition – all the more meritorious. However, to suggest, as Gillespie does incessantly, that her upbringing and the hardships she endured somehow mitigate her culpability, is ridiculous. The film wants us to believe that Harding is merely a victim of the stupidity of others, namely Gillooly and his delusional, dim-witted friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser), rather than an active participant in any scheme to knobble Kerrigan. Given that she had done nothing wrong other than being adjudged a better skater than Harding, the way Kerrigan is portrayed in I, Tonya is mean–spirited, ill-conceived and all in the name of trying to convince us that Harding is the real victim, which, of course, is nonsense.

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Through it all, Robbie delivers a show-stopping performance that has justifiably seen her feature prominently in awards speculations. Janney, likewise, is every bit as good as we come to expect from her, making LaVona utterly repulsive, yet you can’t wait to see what she is going to do or say next; her incredulousness at the suggestion that she wasn’t a good mother is deeply delusional yet darkly comic. In fact, the one trait that Tonya has seemingly inherited from her mother is the inability to take responsibility for one’s actions. Another Australian actress in Bojana Novakovic (who was so good in 2011’s Burning Man and has been seen most recently on television in Shameless and Instinct) also features as one of Harding’s coaches, while Bobby Cannavale is lumped with a character whose presence is pointless and brings nothing interesting or insightful to the table.  The other real star is film editor Tatiana Riegel whose rapid-fire cutting brings a sense of urgency to proceedings. Having worked with Gillespie before on the far superior Lars and the Real Girl, Riegel rises to the challenge of bringing a multitude of stylistic and aesthetic elements together and makes watching I, Tonya more tolerable than it might otherwise be. Despite the heroics of Robbie, Janney and Riegel, Gillespie has failed to deliver a film that presents as anything more than a tribute to Tonya Harding that is as bewildering as it is blatant. Who knows, maybe Gillespie’s next trick will be to try and sell us on the idea that OJ Simpson is a really good bloke who also deserves our sincerest sympathy.

Molly’s Game

Everybody wants to be a filmmaker, or so it seems. Of course, actors making the move behind the camera has become common practice, but with Molly’s Game it is award-winning scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin who has decided to try his hand at the directing caper. Having penned the likes of The Social Network, Moneyball and TV’s The West Wing, Sorkin is undeniably a talented writer, however the Sony email hack from 2014 also revealed that he is not the most enlightened individual, with leaked emails revealing that, at best, he is an arrogant ignoramus and, at worst, a misogynistic, racist clown. Given his disparaging comments about female actors, it certainly is interesting that Sorkin has opted for a film with a female lead as his directorial debut. Perhaps even more surprising is that the female lead in question is Jessica Chastain who, as an advocate for gender equality, has become one of the most outspoken voices against sexism in the entertainment industry. However, the fact that Sorkin may well be a douchebag of the highest order is largely irrelevant in evaluating his work and, with her story, former freestyle skiing champion Molly Bloom has gifted Sorkin a remarkable tale that has all the ingredients to make a captivating big screen drama. Unfortunately, Sorkin has failed to fully realise the potential of the story, in part due to a reluctance to take on the Hollywood big shots who are identified in Bloom’s book.

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Bloom’s childhood and her rise to the top of her sport oozes potential for a film of its own, but the movie opens with Bloom (Chastain) suffering a career-ending injury in her attempt to qualify for a spot at the Winter Olympics. With skiing out of the picture, Molly takes a job as an assistant to Dean Keith (real estate entrepreneur Darin Fenstein in real life) who organises a weekly poker game at The Cobra Lounge (a not-too-subtle clue that the real club in question was The Viper Room). Soon enough, Molly is handed the responsibility of organising and running the game and it isn’t long before she sees the potential in such a set-up. When she and Keith part ways, Molly decides to establish her own game, taking Keith’s biggest players with her, one of whom is identified in the movie only as Player X, although is it generally accepted that X is really Spiderman star Tobey Maguire, who features prominently in Bloom’s book. As played by Michael Cera, Player X is an asshole who ultimately plays a significant role in Molly’s downfall.

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When she is arrested, Molly turns to lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) to represent her and he, in the interests of securing leniency from the courts, implores Molly to name the various players at her games beyond those already exposed in her book or who have already been identified in the course of the investigation, a suggestion she rejects outright. It is somewhat ironic therefore that Sorkin takes an even more conservative approach to this very issue in that, whilst his screenplay has Molly under pressure to give up her players names, he refuses to identify even those participants – such as the likes of Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio and Ben Affleck – who Bloom mentioned in her memoir.

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Chastain, Elba and Cera are all fine enough in the key roles, with everybody else confined to the margins, including Kevin Costner as Molly’s father, a somewhat one-dimensional and rather contemptible character whose approval Molly has spent so much of her life trying to secure. Given that Bloom was involved in the adaptation of her story to the screen, it is reasonable to assume that her father was, indeed, the utter prick that we see here. Whilst Molly’s Game allows us a glimpse into a world of high stakes poker that is fascinating but far beyond the reach of us ordinary folk, the ending ultimately emerges as an anti-climax that leaves you wondering what all the fuss was about.

The Shape of Water

It is common knowledge that Guillermo del Toro loves monsters. The Mexican director has made no secret of the fact and his obsession has been articulated on screen before with the superb Pan’s Labyrinth and, to a lesser extent, in the two Hellboy movies. Having ventured, less successfully, into the more traditional horror and sci-fi realms with his last two films (Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak), del Toro returns to his passion with The Shape of Water, a film that, amidst the generally rave reviews and award nominations, has also been deemed the ‘end of civilisation’ by one nut-job pastor who definitely doesn’t deserve the moment in the spotlight that his ridiculous comments have garnered. Sure, others have taken aim at the ‘inter-species relationship’ that is the central tenet of the narrative, but the bond that develops between a mute cleaner and a mysterious sea creature held captive in a research facility is no more provocative than the likes of Beauty and the Beast or other films that have seen human characters form a connection with a non-human entity, such as the relationship between Kong and Ann Darrow in King Kong or Caleb Smith’s flirtations with the robot Ava in Ex-Machina. These types of stories have been around as long as films have existed and this particular version plays out as a fairytale for adults; a celebration of the outsider that pays homage to monster movies with a stylistic nod to Old Hollywood.

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Rendered voiceless in a childhood incident, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) lives alone in a flat above a movie cinema. Her day is one of ritual and routine; waking at midnight, masturbating in the bath, catching the bus to work for a night spent in the company of Zelda (Octavia Spencer) as they go about cleaning a facility that seems to require a lot more janitorial attention than seems absolutely necessary. Other than her neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), Zelda is the only person with whom Elisa has any kind of relationship as many, especially the supercilious Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), treat her as though her inability to speak somehow makes her intellectually defective in some way. Strickland is the man responsible for the capture of the sea creature being held in a tank at the facility and whilst he, and everybody else, treats the ‘beast’ as a threat, Elisa makes a connection that results in the two developing a mutual affection drawn from a shared sense of being seen as an oddity and therefore misunderstood by others.

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Hawkins is wonderful as this lonely woman who is all but invisible to everybody except Zelda, Richard and, of course, her newfound friend from the deep. Having already garnered considerable praise – and some award recognition – for her performances in the likes of Happy-Go-Lucky and Blue Jasmine, Hawkins should feature strongly in the Academy Award reckoning this year. Zelda is a hoot who does more than enough talking for the both of them, while Doug Jones deserves recognition for bringing ferocity and sensitivity to the amphibious creature despite the confines of the costuming. Jenkins is funny as an advertising illustrator whose relevance is being eroded by changing technology, with Michael Stuhlbarg at the centre of a cold war subplot in which his Dr Robert Hoffstetler is torn between his obligations as a Russian agent and his ethical responsibilities as a scientist. The real beast of the piece is Strickland, whose fearsome and intimidating persona at work is in stark contrast to his kitschy home life.

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Dan Lausten’s cinematography is vibrant and del Toro has, quite remarkably, executed a vast array of fantastical elements, incorporating practical effects and CGI seamlessly and bringing the whole thing together for less than $20 million. Very much a film that celebrates cinema – Elisa and Giles sit and watch old black and white movies and featuring the likes of Shirley Temple and Betty Grable as other movies play in the cinema below – The Shape of Water is a tale of love, loneliness and connection that is whimsical, wistful and quite wonderful.

The Post

Set in the early 1970’s during a time of growing anger at America’s continued involvement in the Vietnam War, Steven Spielberg’s latest doesn’t focus on the conflict itself, instead shining some light on the machinations behind the scenes; the deceit and dishonesty by the Government in relation to how, and why, decisions were made and the misinformation that was fed to the media in the interests of misleading the American public. It is hardly surprising that efforts were made to prevent the news media from publishing excerpts from the classified report – dubbed The Pentagon Papers – given it reveals that the administrations of several Presidents knew that America was losing the war and to keep sending troops was a folly from which the only certainty seemed to be the unnecessary death of US soldiers. Extensive excerpts from the report were initially published in The New York Times and subsequently in The Washington Post (hence the title), detailing the lies told to the American populous about US military involvement in, not only Vietnam, but across entire Indochina region since the 1940’s.

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The crux of the story lies in the dilemma facing Washington Post publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) with regard to whether or not she should allow her editor Tony Bradlee (Tom Hanks) to print extracts from the documents in the face of a court ruling that prohibits the New York Times from doing exactly that. Whilst Bradlee argues that they should be able to publish the information because the public has a ‘right to know’, he is also acutely aware that this is an opportunity for his paper to gain credibility and emerge from the shadows of more highly-regarded publications. Undermined by the men who refuse to take her seriously, Graham is faced with a decision that could, in addition to the significant political ramifications, have serious implications for the future of the paper and her close friendship with Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), the man responsible for many of the findings outlined in the documents. Despite subject matter that seems ideal for dramatic exploration, The Post is surprisingly dull, both in its exploration of the story and the characterisation of the key players.

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Hanks’ performance makes Bradlee seem more like a cartoonish version of such a character – Perry White or J. Jonah Jamieson, for example – rather than somebody we can take seriously. Streep, meanwhile, also fails to convince as a woman who, in theory at least, is breaking new ground in a traditionally male-centric environment, yet struggles to assert her authority, with Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whiford) particularly hostile in his resentment towards her. The terrific supporting cast also includes Matthew Rhys as whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg and Bob Odenkirk as the journalist who tracks him down (as easy as a couple of phone calls, apparently), along with Carrie Coon, Sarah Paulson and Alison Brie, although none of these women have roles befitting their considerable talents, which is more to do with the rampant sexism and misogynistic attitudes of the time, rather than any failings of the filmmakers.

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A limp screenplay ensures that neither Hanks nor Streep are anywhere near their best here and The Post falls somewhat short in comparison to other films of this ilk – such as All the President’s Men or the recent Spotlight, for example – and whilst, as some have said, it might be Spielberg’s best film for some time, it pales in comparison to his greatest achievements. Despite subject matter (freedom of speech, government accountability) that is extremely relevant at the moment in light of the current political climate in America (and elsewhere), The Post somehow fails to resonate in any meaningful way and, rather than leave you pondering the complexities of the debate around free speech and freedom of the press, it is very unlikely that any of what transpires will remain in your consciousness beyond the time it takes you to get home from the cinema.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

There are indeed three billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, sitting dilapidated, unused and largely unseen given their location alongside a quiet country road. However, they soon become the centre of attention when grief-stricken Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) rents the signs in a bid to hold local Police Chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) accountable for what she sees as a lack of progress in the investigation of her daughter’s rape and murder some nine months earlier. Bitter and burdened by an all-consuming mix of guilt, anger and grief, Mildred is desperate for answers and seemingly has no regard for whoever happens to get in the way of her bloody-minded quest. Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is undeniably funny at times and McDormand is sensational in the lead role, but there are too many moments of serious violence that are played for laughs and for which there are no real consequences forthcoming for those responsible.

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One thing at which McDonagh has proven very adept in his previous films (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) is dishing up great dialogue and that is the case again here with some cracking lines delivered by various players, which include Sam Rockwell as a particularly problematic policeman. Despite Mildred’s very public admonishment of Willoughby, there is nothing to suggest that he hasn’t done everything he can to solve the case and Harrelson brings a perfect mix of humour and humanity to the role. In fact, Harrelson is terrific as a man held in high regard by the community who is burdened by a pressing personal predicament that is much more serious than anything Mildred can throw at him. Mildred’s foul-mouthed tirades are a riot and her interactions with Willoughby are something special, but when one of them makes an early exit from proceedings, the film flounders through the final third amidst a series of convenient coincidences and scenes that only seem to exist for the comic potential they offer; a potential that is not always fully realised.

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Rockwell is lumbered with a character too stupid to be believable and the fact that he is allowed to get way with so much – such as throwing somebody out of a second-storey window for no real reason whatsoever – with nary a hint of any serious repercussions other than losing a job for which he was utterly unsuited in the first place, requires a considerable suspension of disbelief. As James, Peter Dinklage has little to do other than suffer through a series of dwarf jokes and serve as an alibi for Mildred, while John Hawkes also features as Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie, who is prone to outbursts of violence. In one scene, Charlie has Mildred pinned to the wall and is poised to strike when his girlfriend Penelope (Australian actress Samara Weaving) interrupts proceedings but is utterly non-plussed about what she has witnessed. Unfortunately for Weaving, Penelope is such a cliché as the dumb, much younger girlfriend that the character has little substance and affords little opportunity for her to make her presence felt, while another Aussie in Abbie Cornish is also confined to a somewhat insubstantial role as Willoughby’s wife.

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE OF EBBING, MISSOURI

When it’s good, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is very good; a cracking good yarn with a plot that seems much more complex than it actually is, but is engaging nevertheless. The dialogue delivers all the best moments, one of which is Mildred drawing an analogy between LA street gangs and the Catholic Church. Sometimes, the violence is too excessive within the context of this story, but the standout performances from McDormand and Harrelson go a long way towards compensating for the shortcomings that exist in character development and narrative logic. It is not surprising that McDormand is amongst the Oscar favourites for her performance and whilst the film itself doesn’t quite reach the same lofty heights, it is definitely something that strays far from the cookie-cutter conventions of Hollywood.