Though at times it may seem as quiet and unassuming as its main character, A Good Woman is Hard to Find knows how to draw attention to itself at just the right moments, expertly building tension from muted scenarios before punctuating them with bloody release. Though an anticlimactic end perhaps puts too neat a bow around the otherwise messy and fascinating package, confident direction and compelling performances bolster the deliberately paced story, resulting in low-key thriller that is rarely less than gripping.
After an ominous prologue that hints at a violent future to come, we are introduced to single mother Sarah as she navigates the supermarket on a small budget before enduring the latest in what is undoubtedly a string of small humiliations suffered by her due to a lower-class status and the drug-related assumptions surrounding her late husband’s murder. Though clearly life-worn and tired, Sarah tries to maintain a smile even in the face of those who would look down on her, focusing on her kids, including a young son traumatized by the incident that took his father.
Even as her mother accuses her of being too soft, Sarah inwardly soldiers on, frustrated by the lack of progress with the police investigation, but generally demonstrating a non-confrontational attitude and endearing patience with her situation in life. However, her perceived wishy-washiness is put to the test when a petty crook named Tito rips off a local crime boss and breaks into Sarah’s home in order to hide. Liking the anonymous look of the place — and his ability to bully the resident — he decides that he will keep his newfound drug stash there, whether she likes it or not.
Many stories pivot upon just how far one character can be pushed, and A Good Woman is Hard to Find falls squarely into this category. When this precarious arrangement inevitably goes south, what will this mild-mannered person do to achieve some sort of cosmic balance, to assert control over their life? Well, it turns out that upon reaching her limit for tolerating everyone’s abuse, Sarah is willing to go to some pretty distant lengths in order to stand up for herself and protect what little she has — probably to her own surprise.
What separates A Good Woman is Hard to Find from much of the empowerment pack is just how skillfully it paints its picture. It’s always easy to go overboard in garnering sympathy for a sad sack by putting a halo over their head as they’re besieged by cartoonishly brutal villainy (and there’s definitely a bit of the latter here), but writer-director Abner Pastoll mostly maintains a more grounded subtlety, not afraid to understand that human beings come in shades. So, while the sadistic crime boss might not feel too out of place in a Guy Ritchie film, the rest of the characters are given dimension enough to keep viewers on their toes.
This can lead to shocking moments of tension when people are faced with crucial decisions, as we can’t be quite sure that they’ll make the ‘right’ one. Sarah is obviously sympathetic, but her mired state leaves the door open to potential weaknesses. Stealing batteries from her kids’ toys to pleasure herself or contemplating a powdery high are innocuous actions in themselves, but taken as a whole these moments suggest lines that she can be tempted to cross. Likewise, Tito brings menace into the household, yet also some odd, blue-collar levity; like most people, he actually thinks he’s a decent enough fellow. That doesn’t alleviate or excuse his despicable actions, but contributes to an impending, tragic vibe that A Good Woman is Hard to Find delicately simmers with.
This feeling does eventually come to a boil in a brilliantly staged and edited event that is appropriately bloody and squirm-inducing as it depicts a literal transformation while implying a spiritual one. This scene benefits greatly from the lack of sensationalism that precedes it, and makes for a satisfying culmination of what has taken place up to this point. Unfortunately, the later tidy conclusion, while cathartic, does undermine that overall grittiness a bit, ever-so-slightly stretching credibility while at the same time undermining the complexity of Sarah’s relationship with and memory of her husband. The ease of the wrapup is a small nit to pick, to be sure, and is — given how it’s achieved — arguably restrained, but it does come across as a bit anticlimactic.
Regardless, such a brief falter does not diminish the rich tension that comes before it. Anchored by Sarah Bolger’s powerful performance as a suppressed woman finally discovering what she might be capable of, and showcasing Pastoll’s confident, steady direction, A Good Woman is Hard to Find is a subtle thriller to look out for.
The Fantasia Film Festival runs July 11 – August 1. Visit the official website for more information.