An actress plays with fire by studying the real life deviant she’s booked to portray in the newest drama from Todd Haynes.
The best films of writer-director Todd Haynes see him tell stories about dysfunctional suburbia with provocative ideas about nontraditional relationships in a unique visual style; one such example is his 2002 masterpiece Far From Heaven, which saw the dissolution of a suburban couple’s marriage with a look reminiscent of 1950s Hollywood melodramas. Haynes continues his prodding with May December, another solid entry in his oeuvre thanks to incredible performances from his lead actresses, creative direction, dark tone and equally twisted humor.
In May December, Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) is an actress who travels to Savannah, Georgia to research her role for a TV movie as Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore), a woman infamous for a tabloid romance with her now-husband Joe Yoo (Charles Melton) while he was only in the seventh grade. Through direct encounters with the controversial couple and the people on the outskirts of Gracie’s horrifying scandal, Elizabeth gets to know Gracie from inside out, sometimes going to nefarious and disturbing depths to understand her subject.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s arrival into Gracie and Joe’s surface-level suburbia begins to affect their espousal just in time for their twin children’s graduation from high school; with Gracie taking it upon herself to match Elizabeth’s insincere kindness and incessant investigation with an unsettling victimhood and childlike innocence with intentions full of ominous ambiguity. But she is completely unaware that Joe himself becomes fascinated by the sleuthing actress and even ponders his own bond to Gracie, risking the unraveling of his family life.
May December is a compelling drama crafted from an inventive story by Alex Mechanik and screenwriter Samy Burch, who infuses the original script with a demented sense of humor that pokes fun at the absurd lengths Elizabeth and Gracie go to do their work and live with their horrible decisions, respectively. An example of the former comes midway through the film when Elizabeth studies the exact spot where Gracie and Joe first made love by practicing the heinous act by herself, while the latter appears earlier when Gracie asks Joe to throw away a literal box of excrement they’ve received in the mail.
This skewering of celebrity and dark humanity alike is also made clear in Haynes’ stylistic choices as director. Producing the film with Will Ferrell may be an odd pairing on paper, but the comedian proved to be a perfect partner for Haynes’ creative approach toward telling the Lifetime original movie-esque story in a style not unlike an art-conscious soap opera, such as when a piercingly high note in the overdramatic musical score plays when Gracie opens her refrigerator to falsely claim, “We don’t have enough hot dogs” for their outside barbecue, which both adds a level of self-aware comedy to May December and offers a window into how deranged Gracie really is. Haynes’ shot compositions also provide a more visual look into a character’s mindset, particularly when Elizabeth and Gracie watch the latter’s daughter try on underdresses, as the sociopath’s reflections surround the two-faced actress to convey her obsession with her cinematic subject.
And after working with Haynes on Far From Heaven, Julianne Moore reunites with him to put in another incredible performance matched by Natalie Portman’s own powerhouse acting, which together builds palpable tension all the way to the film’s conclusion. Moore is unhinged as Gracie, and goes the extra mile through the quirk of a lisp when speaking to Elizabeth as if to behave like the crazed housewife ravaged by trauma that the actress perceives her as in an act of subtle confrontation.
Meanwhile, Portman communicates her facade in a manner that matches Moore every step of the way through a melodramatic tone of voice to kill those she interrogates with faux kindness, and alludes to her deliberate intentions with suggestive intrigue in her line delivery, such as how she responses with calculated fascination to the sad testimony of Gracie’s ex-husband like she’s getting aroused. Elizabeth’s progression over the course of her study can also be seen in moments where she describes the hands on a child’s X-ray Joe is observing as “so small” as if she’s already in character, and again when she gets lost in thought and more descriptive in explaining the experience of acting in sex scenes to a high school theater class.
As great as all these elements of May December are, more time could have been spent on the perspective of Gracie’s husband Joe, not only because as a character he is the true victim of both Gracie’s hideous quest for power and Elizabeth’s exploitative aspirations, but also because Charles Melton is so good in the role; his vacant expressions depict Joe as a boy trapped in a man’s body, forced to live life as his juvenile idea of what an adult father does. What’s also worth noting is that Todd Haynes is notorious for leaving the main ideas of his films unspoken and barely drawing attention to visual motifs, which may be an acquired taste. Not to mention the material he deals with here may cause too much discomfort for general audiences looking for something more disposable to stream.
But the journey is worth exploring for those looking for a challenge, and May December is a fascinating fusion of two different films: the saddest, most twisted coming-of-age film in recent memory, and a profound commentary about the conniving nature of the insecure and the terrible consequences self-obsession wrecks on a person and those around them. Audiences will be held in suspense by the tension Portman and Moore build on-screen together, debate who has gained the upper hand after each scene, and sympathize with Joe as he grows more aware of his own predicament and how little control he had in getting there. It’s devastating and deviant, but darkly funny, beguiling, and brilliant, and that’s why audiences should see May December.