A Good Woman is Hard to Find. 2019.
Directed by Abner Pastoll. Screenplay by Ronan Blaney.
Starring Sarah Bolger, Edward Hogg, Andrew Simpson, Jane Brennan, Caolan Byrne, & Packy Lee.
February Films / Frakas Productions
Not Rated / 97 minutes
Crime / Thriller
Disclaimer: HUGE (BUT NECESSARY) SPOILERS
Abner Pastoll’s Road Games was an interesting little B-movie style thriller with elements of horror, reminiscent of other creepy road films. Father Gore has made sure to keep Pastoll on the radar. The director’s latest, A Good Woman is Hard to Find, is a shocking, intense piece of fiction about a woman’s struggle to protect her children, and herself, after her husband is stabbed to death. Better still, Sarah Bolger plays the lead role. Her recent work on FX’s series Mayans M.C. (the Sons of Anarchy spin-off) already proved she has a knack for portraying conflicted women living in a patriarchal world.
Ronan Blaney’s screenplay tells the story of Sarah (Bolger). Her husband was murdered on the estate where they live in Ireland. She scrapes by, taking care of her two children. Their lives are again upended by the arrival of an unknown man in their home. A criminal, Tito (Andrew Simpson), robs drug dealers in the neighbourhood and barges into Sarah’s house. He decides this is the best place to stash the stolen drugs, since nobody would have any reason to look there, particularly with local gangster Leo Miller (Edward Hogg) looking for him. This puts Sarah in a dangerous situation.
What will she do?
A Good Woman is Hard to Find isn’t a morality play, like we so often see with a male protagonist. Sarah makes this crime-thriller into a wholly different animal. She faces a twofold storm of inequality. She’s judged for her marriage to someone seen as lower class and all that goes along with that socioeconomic label, as well as the fact she’s judged, by men, for the way she lives life as a woman. The plot’s events aren’t meant to make us judge Sarah’s moral choices. We’re meant to applaud that, somehow, she’s able to make it out of a desperately ugly male world intact.
There are several ways Sarah’s being part of a lower economic class play into the plot. One of which involves the relationship she has with her mother, Alice (Jane Brennan). Alice judges her own daughter for loving a man considered lower class. It shines a light on deep-seated ideas of class is in the mind of everyday people, so much so Sarah’s own mother looks down on her and judges her husband, assuming his death was a result of him being a drug dealer. Tito— a drug dealer himself— actually sees life this way. He’s conditioned by his environment to see in stereotypes: “If it walks like a duck, and talks like a duck, it‘s a fucking duck.” This is the tutelage of the economically deprived, taught that if they can’t escape their circumstances then others like them can’t either.
In one scene, Sarah goes to the grocery store with a $17.81 budget for groceries. Later she has to raid her kids’ toys just to get a couple batteries to power her vibrator, the sole source of pleasure in her life aside from her son and daughter. Yet the saddest indication of her family’s social class remains how Stephen has a small wooden cross at his grave. Normally it wouldn’t mean a thing except that the cross sits noticeably smaller than every other headstone around it— the material alone, wood in a sea of marble / other stone, is indicative of the family’s income.
In regards to Alice, perspectives like hers aren’t uncommon in any place with low-income housing estates / projects, no matter if it’s in Ireland, somewhere else in the U.K., America, or anywhere else. The veil between an average citizen and violent street crime in these areas is thin. People who live in these neighbourhoods that aren’t actually a part of anything criminal get lumped into the same category.
This extremely thin veil is seen in the film when Tito comes barrelling through Sarah’s door. Criminals often run roughshod over regular people on estates, preying upon their financial weakness or, in many cases, their drug problems or that of their loved ones. A scary scene becomes a visual representation of how crime works its way into the lives of everybody in a housing estate such as this one, when Sarah’s little boy finds the cocaine Tito stashed and rubs a bunch all over his face.
Apart from lower class criminals, there’s a distinction of Leo as a criminal of wealth. He comes from a relatively privileged upbringing compared to the other characters, suggested in his insistence on proper grammar, so a different view of inequality emerges. Leo owns a pub, and drives a fancy BMW with a personalised plate (LEO5 TBA). His education is pretty clear in the scene where he and his henchmen go looking for Tito and torture his roommates for info. He not only taunts them (“Give me a metaphor“), he gives a quick lesson on “General Tito” and some Yugoslavian history.
He wields power over people economically beneath him. He can’t seem to keep himself from arrogant outbursts of formal education peppered with angry grammar moments. As a character, Leo illustrates how anybody beneath the bourgeoisie— whether capitalist industries or merely rich gangsters— is at risk of a) being used as a cog in the wheel of Leo’s enterprise, and b) becoming a corpse for interfering with criminal business, such as Stephen, and Sarah. Likewise, the fact Leo’s made out to be well-educated goes to show it ultimately doesn’t matter what your upbringing is, not what school you went to or the size of your bank account: there are as many rich criminals as there are poor.
“If you want to get anywhere in life,
you have to be a bit of a bitch.”
There are a number of instances in A Good Woman is Hard to Find where issues of gender come up. Blaney’s screenplay evokes situations women come across every day. Sarah encounters a pervert grocery clerk with a sexist outlook on women. He calls her out on not intending to pay for a candy bar her son ate. When he sees her later that week with more money, he implies a poor woman who suddenly has cash is a sex worker, quipping with a laugh: “How much you charging, anyway?” Tito expresses a similar perspective on women, effectively dividing them into two categories: either they’re “a prozzy” (slang for the word prostitute) or “a good girl.”
Sarah doesn’t experience domestic violence, but we do see the unhealthy attitude of men towards potential victims. When two officers come by Sarah’s place following what they believe is an incident of domestic violence, they suggest she was either asking to be hit or enjoys being abused. “What is it with women like you?” one of them ignorantly says to her, revealing the misogyny embedded deeply into society, right down to the institutions meant to protect people.
Alice has choice words for her daughter about ‘being a bitch’ implying how, at times, this perception is necessary for a woman to get anywhere in a male-dominated world. Her quote is reminiscent of Vera Donovan’s quote to the eponymous character played by Kathy Bates in Dolores Claiborne: “Sometimes you have to be a high–riding bitch to survive. Sometimes, being a bitch is all a woman has to hang onto.” There’s tragic truth in what Alice and Vera say in their own ways. In a world where women aren’t taken seriously, in their professional lives or when it comes to their experiences with abuse, being a so-called bitch is a required tool in the female arsenal.
An interesting inclusion of “How the Whale Got His Throat” by Rudyard Kipling speaks somewhat to this same idea. Kipling’s story, though not a moral tale, does have a theme which mirrors Sarah’s journey. Its message is to use one’s resources, whatever’s available, to be clever. That’s exactly what Sarah does in the end by dressing nicely, putting on lipstick to use her dolled up appearance as a cover for when she pulls a CRAZY move in the back of Leo’s club. Because nobody expects the girl with the bright red lips and the blonde hair to be a revenge-seeking missile.
It’s worth noting Sarah and her mother reconcile before she goes on to take her revenge. This is a union of women, coming together while the rest of the world seems poised against them in so many, many ways. Nobody else— not even the police— are inclined to help Sarah, and along comes Alice, who’d been entirely unsupportive previously, to be there for her daughter. Just one other woman on her side gives Sarah the strength to face the dangerous world of men that killed her husband.
Pastoll’s film evokes Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by virtue of its title alone. Otherwise, there’s no connection. The title of this film is meant as irony. An actual good woman isn’t hard to find— they’re ignored, disrespected, discounted, not believed, mistreated, beaten, raped. These good women exist all around us, often crushed into submission, silenced by a world intent on denying their worth. Sarah is the metaphorical shift in that tide. She represents all the women who won’t tolerate their existence being controlled, decided, and judged for them, no matter if that means fighting fire with fire.
A Good Woman is Hard to Find does a stellar job at subverting the typically male revenge film by letting a woman be the star. Her trajectory doesn’t change because of gender. Sarah goes through the same gruesome stuff a male character would in the same scenario if it were a husband seeking to avenge his wife. She also doesn’t require a man to finish the job she’s started. Blaney’s screenplay never defers to the false concept there are some things a woman can’t bring herself to do even in defence of her family— if a father would kill to protect his own, why wouldn’t a mother?
The final scene with Sarah sticking it to the sexist grocery clerk feels like when you’ve had a delicious meal and the host suddenly tells you they have a cheesecake in the fridge for dessert they totally forgot about until that moment. Pastoll and Blaney are so careful with how they craft the narrative. It’s a hopeful sign that, in 2019 when we’re continually working on issues of representation in front of / behind the camera, two men are able to tell a strongly female story with such honesty and accuracy. But it wouldn’t be half the film it is without Bolger. She fills each frame with vulnerability, power, and the love of a mother who’d walk to hell and back barefoot if it meant keeping her children from harm.