Greetings again from the darkness. Do nothing. Stay and fight. Leave. Those are the three options a group of women debate in the loft of a barn on the edge of their religious commune. The true story that inspired Miriam Toews to write her 2018 novel is horrific. Between 2005 and 2009, there were more than 150 cases of females being drugged (with livestock tranquilizers) and violently raped. They ranged in age from three to sixty-five, and this occurred in a deeply religious Mennonite community in Bolivia. The great writer-director Sarah Polley has adapted Ms. Toews’ novel for her first feature since STORIES WE TELL (2012), and we welcome her back as a voice always deserving of a platform.
When two girls spot a rapist running away one evening, an emotional fire is lit. The man is charged, and this leads the women to organize their own meeting to discuss the three options noted above. Rooney Mara plays Ona, the good-hearted optimist. Claire Foy plays her sister Salome who spends much time in rage mode. Jessie Buckley is Mariche, the often brutally abused woman who has her own strong ideas. If you are a movie lover, you immediately recognize that these three are among the best young actresses working today. What a pleasure to watch them do what they do … despite the material often being extremely uncomfortable and stress-inducing. This new generation of community women are joined in debate by the elders: Agata (Judith Ivey) and Greta (Sheila McCarthy), who both carry the burden of shame having raised their daughters in this environment. Scarface Janz (Oscar winner Frances McDormand, also a producer on the film) only has a couple of scenes, as she is stays strong in her ”do nothing” stance.
As the dialogue continues in the loft, we learn much about what these women, as well as the generations before them, have endured. Over the years, whenever victims have spoken up about the horrible abuses, their accusations have been dismissed as “wild female imagination.” The religious patriarchy has led to many years of submission and resignation to a lesser life – one that includes manual labor and a lack of education. These women cannot read or write, so they have asked August (an excellent Ben Whishaw) to take notes and list the pros and cons of the options. August is a gentle soul and the local schoolteacher who has an eye towards Ona.
Revenge, forgiveness, protecting one’s self and their children is all part of the discussion, as is the difference between fleeing and leaving. These women are finding their voice through the strength of each other. Cinematographer Luc Montpellier uses mostly black and white with some subtle color gradation for effect, as well as a contrast between interior (barn loft) shots and those of the outdoor vistas and fields (representing the outside world). The score from Hildur Guonadottier is heavy on strings and works perfectly for the story, and the inclusion of “Daydream Believer” from The Monkees is a welcome inclusion.
We don’t normally think of cinema as watching people sit around and talk. One of the best ever movies showing debate among adults is 12 ANGRY MEN, and this film takes a similar approach and is not far off from the level of that all-time classic. The courage of those real women from Bolivia was staggering, and Sarah Polley offers up this intellectual and thought-provoking approach to these women taking stock of their situation. It’s a gut punch, yet somehow inspiring.
Opens in theaters on January 13, 2023