Movies about women pushed to the edge of violence and beyond are something of a sub-genre unto themselves, but they typically focus on women seeking revenge for crimes against them directly. There are exceptions, of course, including the likes of Hard Candy (2005) and Peppermint (2018), and one of the best — and most recent — is Abner Pastoll‘s A Good Woman Is Hard to Find. It’s a tight, unexpected little thriller headlined by a fantastic lead performance, and it serves as a reminder that single mothers really can do it all.
Sarah (Sarah Bolger) has two young children, bills to pay, and a recently deceased husband. It’s a tough life, particularly since the police seem disinterested in investigating or solving her husband’s murder, but she makes do. A new challenge arises, though, when a small-time thug named Tito (Andrew Simpson) comes crashing into her flat on the run from bigger-time thugs who he’s just ripped off. Tito stashes the drugs there and leaves, but he’s soon making return visits against Sarah’s will. Worse, the local crime lord’s search for Tito is bringing him and his boys closer to her home and children too.
The setup of Ronan Blaney‘s script is simple enough, but the joy is in the directions and choices that follow through A Good Woman Is Hard to Find‘s lean and efficient running time. Decades of similar-sounding thrillers have taught viewers to expect certain things, particularly in the relationship between a female protagonist and a bad guy who’s not the worst guy, but the film stays on its toes throughout and nimbly dances around those cliches.
Pastoll captures the action and suspense beats well, but the film’s greatest strength comes in the time spent with Sarah in between those genre-fueled sequences. Her constant balance between exhaustion and resilience is highly recognizable and works to endear Sarah to viewers in unexpected ways. A scene involving her effort to try and relax with a motorized “friend” makes her instantly relatable and humanizes her in ways most thrillers could only dream of for their bad-ass protagonist. Sarah’s doing her best to raise two kids, one of whom has gone mute since witnessing his dad’s murder, and she’s succeeding despite the judgment of her mother, local authorities, and even strangers at the supermarket.
“If you want to get anywhere in this world you have to be a bit of a bitch,” says her mother, and it’s just one more sleight against Sarah. The breaking point seems inevitable, and Pastoll paces his film well as its blend of character beats, humanity, and violence build with an engrossing intensity. Through it all sits Bolger just killing it with a performance that’s as empathetic as it is fierce. Sarah’s love for her kids — two fantastic child performances by the way — is balanced with a rage against a world content to label and forget her, and while she’s no master planner when it comes to seeking justice the results are both exhilarating and satisfying all the same.
The film takes a minor stumble with the character of Leo Miller (Edward Hogg) as the big bad, but while Hogg’s performance feels a bit too heightened for the rest of the film it brings a degree of grim fun that ultimately doesn’t hurt things. (The bigger issue is Leo’s inexplicable obliviousness to the existence of Tito Jackson…) He feels one or two steps removed from the rest of the characters, but it arguably works in service of his role here as something of a local boogeyman. Simpson deserves a shout, too, as Tito is a balancing act of his own who moves from deceptively endearing punk to someone far more unpredictable.
Like Pastoll’s previous feature, Road Games (2015), his latest is once again an attractive thriller that feels both fresh and familiar enough. Cinematographer Richard C. Bell finds a stark beauty in Sarah’s surroundings while composer Matthew Pusti aids the film’s propulsion and atmosphere with the result being a solidly entertaining tale of one woman pushed several steps too far. Toss in some pointed commentary on the blind judgment too often assigned to the working class, some grisly body bits, and what should be a star-making performance, and A Good Woman Is Hard to Find becomes one of this weird year’s must sees.