Sarah Polley’s Women Talking was the last of this year’s ten Best Picture nominees to see a theatrical release outside NYC, L.A., or film festivals, which don’t count as a release into the real world. Now that I’ve seen all ten, I realize it isn’t the flashiest, and it was probably the least expensive to make, but the titular discussion group is now in my Top 3 of that list, in good company with Evelyn Quan and Lydia Tár. Not that they need males vouching for them. On a related note, I imagine a film called Men Vouching would be the worst — just two hours of dudes indiscriminately giving everything two thumbs up, even movies that don’t contain Marvel or DC products. It’d still be better than 90% of all YouTube movie review channels, but not by much.
Though the poster and plot summary could’ve been plucked from anywhere in America’s last two centuries, Women Talking transports us back merely to 2010, when Obama was president, Breaking Bad was still on the air, and OK Go’s “This Too Shall Pass” was the best reason for YouTube to exist. Absolutely none of that matters in a film set in a Mennonite community where the women have called a meeting to discuss the menfolk’s monstrous crimes. Rapes and assaults against are up infinity percent and have happened to every single female in town. The men feign innocence and blame it on ghosts and/or Satan. Or possibly both, collaborating against the womenfolk while leaving the men alone, because everyone knows ghosts and Satan are totally hetero horndogs.
Several of the more prominent women among them have decided enough is enough and something needs to change. Hence follows the most important initiative of their lives — a vote to decide whether:
- All the women should respect the status quo as set forth by the Word of God, as interpreted by the men in charge, who also happen to be their rapists and attackers, and permit the attacks to continue for the rest of their lives, shortened though they might be by said rapes and attacks.
- All the women should grab weapons and turn this into a gratifying, blood-soaked action-revenge thriller that would’ve made $100 million at the box office.
- All the women should just pick up and leave. Go live where the attackers aren’t. “If you don’t like it, leave!” is the scornful sneer of many a dude when faced with criticism of their sins, so…why not?
The strict rules against literacy for women necessitate a creative voting process. They can’t do letters or words, but one of the youngsters can draw quiet well. A board is divided into three parts, each topped with a drawing representing one of the three options. Each voter places an X in the appropriate column to represent her signature. Everyone promises not to stuff the ballot-board with duplicate X’s lest their dishonesty invite God’s wrath. They tally up the X’s.
The results are a tie. “Keep getting raped forever” is a distant third and therefore disqualified. The most vocal supporter of Proposition Just Lie There and Take It is played by Frances McDormand, who’s also one of the producers and for once is not crushing weak men’s souls with her unfettered temper. Rather, her cranky character’s deeply ingrained fealty to the men tells her they need the men’s forgiveness to enter Heaven, so to displease them in any way will mean an eternity of hellfire and brimstone. At least, that’s what all the men have taught her over the years to their benefit. But she insists on it passionately, even as she and her two daughters visibly bear the scars and traumas of the violence done to them. One character correctly describes this as “a misuse of forgiveness”, one of my favorite lines among the extremely writerly dialogue throughout, which is my kind of jam.
What to do then? Fight back or flee? The solution is implied in the title: it’s talkin’ time. They adjourn to the loft in the biggest barn and debate how to break the tie. Familiar faces take sides, some with severe complications to them. Claire Foy (our first Queen from The Crown) is the angriest of them all (with tremendously understandable reason), who knows that if she stays, she will spill blood. Jessie Buckley (I’m Thinking of Ending Things, The Lost Daughter) is likewise worried about entry into Heaven, but is also concerned because her husband Klaas is the biggest, most feared abuser of them all. Rooney Mara (The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) is more of an intellectual and believes they should leave, but is also pregnant by one of her rapists.
Two older women contribute in their own ways: Sheila McCarthy (the TV reporter from Die Hard 2) loves making analogies using her two pet horses Ruth and Cheryl; the other, Judith Ivey, (Jay Sherman’s mom on The Critic), helps them drill down toward the truest tenets they all share. Also, a select number of teens are engaged in the process, some wiser and better contributors than others, but they’re considered to have just as much a say in what happens as their elders do. Some of the rapists are their age, trained by the few role models available to them.
The debate is, as you’d expect and hope for and appreciate, is the crux of the film. Movies about debates aren’t nearly as common as they used to be, and most of the classic examples that come to mind, where the arguments are the best part of the movie, are male-dominated — e.g., Twelve Angry Men, Glengarry Glen Ross, Reservoir Dogs, maybe a few where it’s men versus women in knock-down screaming matches as in Marriage Story or The War of the Roses. The women’s filibustering and rebuttals don’t quite devolve into minutes-long screaming matches or gunfights. Tempers do flare and voices do selectively rise several decibels above a suppressed politeness level, but this isn’t a showcase for rage-monsters. Those are the bad guys, none of whom are allowed to interrupt the talks or appear in the film itself. (Polley states her intentions up front with a brief title card: “The following is an act of female imagination.”)
For a refreshing change of pace, the movie’s ultimate moral isn’t “religion = bad” as a flat rule. Those who pervert and abuse faith to their own selfish, terrible ends are the primary issue, though there’s room for a sidebar about long-standing systems that have been warped beyond any predecessors’ altruistic intents. Far as they care to express themselves, all the women are unanimously staunch in their love of Jesus, sing hymns, and quote Philippians 4:8 while working through their opinions. They don’t take the full runtime to come to an agreement.
Whereas Twelve Angry Men ended with the unanimous verdict and the begrudging appreciation of the difference a jury made in one man’s life, the story doesn’t end there for the Talkers: now they have to turn their words into deeds and physically take the steps for that life-changing decision to happen. Tension ratchets up as they realize their time away from the males is growing short and a deadline looms large. What happens next leads them not into tragedy but toward relief and affirmation — the power of a united community taking a stand, taking control of their lives, and refuting the madness that’s tried to pass itself off as leadership.
At no point does anyone ask “What will we do without the men?” They don’t need to dwell on that. That’s the easy part.
Meanwhile in the customary MCC film breakdowns:
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Did I mention there’s one (1) man permitted into the proceedings? Ben Whishaw — the voice of the great Paddington, and weaponsmith Q to Daniel Craig’s James Bond — is the village schoolteacher, who is certified A-OK by all the women present. He left for a while to attend university out in the big, cursed world and then returned home to share the best parts of what he learned with the community he loves. As the lone literate participant, he’s there to transcribe their thoughts, and compiles results of the brainstorming process when they inevitably decide to make lists of pros and cons, which proves this is definitely 2010. He tries not to speak over them or suggest what they should think. When he does gently overstep a boundary, he’s firmly reminded of his place and graciously offers his apologies. He agrees he isn’t meant to be the center of attention.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Women Talking end credits, just a bit of musical accompaniment — a full replay of the Monkees’ “Daydream Believer”, curiously not covered by an all-female band. To an extent the lyrics echo the women’s dreams of freedom from harm and malice. Following that is a short nature-sound interlude, concluding with tiny children warbling a reprise of “Nearer My God to Thee”.