Todd Haynes’ “May December” stars Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Berry, an actress researching a role by meeting the subjects of the true-life story her new film is based on.
Berry meets Gracie (Julianne Moore) and her husband, Joe (Charles Melton), who are both living low-key lives in a small town to evade the intense media curiosity that plagued them years ago. Berry grows closer to them both and discovers dark secrets of their past, as Gracie and Joe haven’t fully escaped nor overcome the actions that defined their past.
“May December” was inspired by a hideous true-life crime story that I was unaware of until the film ended, and someone informed me that the details in the film are mostly accurate. I won’t reveal the specifics of the case (apparently, I missed a lot of TMZ episodes when this story took place and became media fodder) and try not to spoil the plot.
Haynes has made a film that isn’t really about the case (and thankfully, there are no reenactments – the R rating is mostly due to a single sex scene) but about the process an actor takes in researching a role. This approach makes the story limited as a thriller and something of a letdown at the end.
I expected a bigger finish and suspect audiences will, too.
What initially promises to be Haynes’ take on “Persona” (1966) is more reserved than that. The emphasis is on Berry’s perspective, which is inquisitive but fully in control, while Gracie and Joe seem to come undone by having their notorious secrets investigated and possibly exploited by a clever actress.
Perhaps this is as much about creating art as a reflection of tragedy as much as Hayne’s best film, the still unreleased and staggeringly brilliant “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” (1987). I had hoped for emotional fireworks on par with Hayne’s fantastic “Carol” (2015) and that never happens, despite some strikingly acted and shot moments between Moore and Portman.
The overall effect is muted, though a number of intense, cleverly filmed and unguarded character moments in the second act are what give the film its staying power. Maybe I wanted more from Haynes than a queasy, chilling, small-town variation on “The Hard Way” (1991).
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Haynes’ “Far From Heaven” (2002), which also starred Moore, was far better at presenting unabashed melodrama while exploring themes of identity, social status and whether anyone with a dark past can ever again be considered innocent in their environment.
Both admirably restrained and truly discomforting, “May December” will be remembered for how invested and spellbinding Moore and especially Portman are here. Haynes has yet to sell out and maintains his status as an indie maverick who can take any genre and make it personal and exploratory.
The use of mirror imagery, particularly how mirrors offer a doubling effect, is put to excellent use. Are we to trust the images that reflect us or the truth that we covet within us?
Haynes investigates this part of human nature, and his conclusions remain unsettling and worthwhile.