Director: Abner Pastoll
Writer: Ronan Blaney
Cast: Sarah Bolger, Andrew Simpson, Edward Hogg, Jane Brennan, Rudy Doherty, Macie McCauley
Producers: Guillaume Benski, Junyoung Jang
Music: Matthew Pusti
Cinematography: Richard Bell
Editor: Abner Pastoll
Running time: 97mins
What’s the story: In Northern Ireland, recently widowed Sarah (Bolger) cares for her two kids, Ben (Doherty) and Lucy (McCauley). Her life becomes more complicated when criminal Tito (Simpson) busts into her flat with drugs stolen from a fearsome local gangster (Hogg).
What’s the verdict: A Good Woman is Hard to Find is equal parts Ken Loach, Shallow Grave, Dead Man’s Shoes and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. Lofty praise, but Abner Pastoll’s follow-up to efficient 2015 shocker Road Games deserves every accolade it receives.
None more than Bolger’s magnificent performance as grieving single mum Sarah, caring for her two kids on a rough estate in an unnamed Northern Ireland city. Sarah’s son Ben has not spoken since seeing his dad murdered on the estate, a case the police have dismissed as a drug deal gone wrong and all but closed.
Sarah’s world is thrown into further chaos with the arrival of Tito (Simpson), a low-level crook who has swiped a substantial drug haul off a couple of mean-eyed thugs. Forcing his way into Sarah’s flat, Tito coerces her into stashing the drugs, which he’ll sell and split the profits. Problem is the drugs belong to local crime lord Leo Miller (Hogg), and Leo wants them back.
Ronan Blaney’s script fuses social commentary with suspense set-pieces in the finest B-movie tradition of a Sam Fuller or Jack Hill flick. Blaney plausibly boxes Sarah in from every angle, from a judgemental mother (Brennan), to officious police and social workers and even a casually cruel supermarket shelf stacker. All see what they want to in the young mum and early on it’s clear Sarah’s on her own.
Pastoll takes Blaney’s script and scorches it onto the screen. Intrusive close-ups and imposing angles intimidate Sarah as much as the plot, conveying the danger of the concrete jungle surrounding her.
What makes this one of the year’s best movies is the focus on character, the glue holding together those suspense set pieces. Pastoll makes space for a fun afternoon with the kids or a decent shopping trip when money allows (albeit spoilt by that shelf stacker). The director makes plot shifts from social realism to dark thriller territory look easy, when in fact it’s a deft hand that can pull off that tonal switch.
Simpson, Pastoll’s lead in Road Games, is superb as the shifty Tito, his bonhomie and tin-eared philosophies (“skinny birds like sweets, fat girls like cake”) shifting to cold menace when challenged. Hogg keeps his performance as Leo Miller the right side of movie psycho, despite a penchant for linguistic debate alongside a bit of torture.
But, A Good Woman is Hard to Find is elevated to five-star status by Sarah Bolger. Her fearless, ferocious performance is captivating from the striking opening shot. Bringing genuine compassion and heartbreak to her richly detailed character, the film could strip out the thriller aspect and still be compelling just watching Sarah raising her kids.
Unafraid to appear careworn and drawn (“You look nothing like that now,” declares Tito when seeing a picture of Sarah in happier times), Bolger never lets the humanity slip even when the film approaches its memorable, violent climax. Get her BAFTA nominated now.
A good woman may be hard to find, but a contender for best thriller of the year isn’t.