Category Archives: ★★★★

The Hustler (1961, Robert Rossen)

It’s an hour into The Hustler before the film offers any real information about protagonist Paul Newman. We’ve seen Newman and mentor slash manager Myron McCormick pool hustle their way across the North American continent, getting Newman to New York City so he can play the best pool player in the world, Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). And Newman does play Gleason. In this beautifully shot, acted, and especially edited twenty-five plus hour pool game between the young upstart and the assured master. McCormick pleads with Newman to remember their plan—ten grand and out—but Newman’s just too cocky.

When Gleason beats him, thirty-five minutes into a two hour and fifteen minute picture, we don’t even get to see Newman lose. He just see him lost. Past lost. We’re left to imagine how he reacted to hours of losing, while Gleason—and his bank, George C. Scott—grew bored beating Newman. McCormick sits quietly devastated while Newman drunkenly lashes out and crumbles from exhaustion.

Scene.

But actually prologue. The Hustler doesn’t really start until after Newman’s snuck out on McCormick and is working to get himself lost in the city. At the bus terminal (to dump his belongs in a locker), he meets Piper Laurie and tries to pick her up. It’s complicated and he’s got to wait until she’s quite drunk, but he manages to do it. Only for her to rebuff him at the door to her apartment; “you’re too hungry,” she tells him. So off Newman shuffles into the anonymous city, finding a room, trying to play some pool (but he’s now famous for losing to Gleason and can’t).

The initial pickup scene—with Laurie simultaneously softened and steeled to Newman’s advances and flirtations—is just as phenomenal as the pool game. It’s the first time we’ve gotten to see Newman act outside the hustler bravado. It’s the first time we’ve seen a woman in the film. It’s the first time director Rossen and editor Dede Allen have done a conversation outside the pool hall—and they use a similar but amplified editing rhythm. Now there are jump cuts, exclamation points focusing on Newman or Laurie. Rossen and Allen keep with this editing style going forward, even after Newman gets back to the pool table. After a freely roaming narrative distance in the first forty minutes, once Laurie arrives, Rossen focuses and refocuses it forcibly. Occasionally harshly. Rossen’s evolving methods to handling the narrative distance parallel Newman’s character development, which doesn’t even start when he meets Laurie the first time. We’ve got to wait another twenty or whatever minutes until McCormick tracks him down.

And then, an hour into the film, both Laurie and the audience find out we haven’t got the slightest idea about Newman as a person. Laurie stands silent, frozen, crying, as she listens to Newman berate McCormick and cast him out. The reality of their “romance,” with Newman living with Laurie and them filling their days with liquor then sex, hits her and breaks her. Did Newman hustle her? Laurie’s got a limp from a childhood case of polio and it’s 1961 so she’s seen as broken—honestly, it’s an indictment of 1961 the word “crippled” didn’t fall out of use after this film—but Newman doesn’t make her feel that way.

At least until she’s now got to wonder if he’s entirely full of shit.

But then Newman hustles in the wrong pool hall and all of a sudden he’s entirely dependent on Laurie. She’s even slowing down on the boozing, with Newman initially reluctantly but then more earnestly following suit. It’s this whole second story, with its own rhythm and feel—all about urban isolation and loneliness and desperation and connection—and when it ties into the prologue, it’s like the apple. When Newman runs into George C. Scott while out on a liquor run for he and Laurie, he finds the snake. Scott thinks he’s too cocky to ever amount to anything but is still talented enough to bank roll for certain jobs.

In one of the quieter tragic twists, once Newman’s found some humility (and humanity), Scott’s the only place he can go to get real work. And bringing in Scott, who’s more than willing to break Newman to make him fit the mold, is what sets everyone on the path to destruction.

The last third or so of The Hustler is just watching Scott crush Newman and Laurie’s tentative, desperate hold on their reality. Laurie has to endure Scott’s intentional cruelty as well as Newman’s slow corruption; it’s pretty easy to corrupt Newman it turns out, there just needs to be booze around. The foundation of Newman and Laurie’s relationship is loving not being sober. It’s loving being loose enough to get free from responsibility. What makes it all even worse is Scott’s already given Newman a character evaluation and told him how he’s going to fail and Newman can’t get off that track. The difference is he’s now got Laurie with him, bringing her along on his first job for Scott; they’re going to the Kentucky Derby to play skeazy blue blood Murray Hamilton. Hamilton likes hustling hustlers at pool and Scott thinks Newman’s got a shot.

The film says a whole bunch about masculinity, toxic masculinity, boozing, sex, romance, money. It doesn’t have much to say about pool. Gleason’s only in the bookend pool games and ends up with an exceptionally subtle, appropriately devastating arc about what it means to have talent.

Great performances from everyone; it’s Newman’s show but Laurie’s the essential. So much of the film plays out on she and Newman’s faces, every expression has to be perfect. Scott’s amazing. Gleason and McCormick are excellent. The Hustler is definitely a “uses up all the superlatives” film. Allen’s edited, Eugen Schüfftan’s photography, Kenyon Hopkins’s music—whoever came up with the titles—it’s a technical masterpiece. I mean, it’s a masterpiece overall—Sidney Carroll and Rossen’s script is singular—the film’s constantly wowing; it’s exhilarating.

And, simultaneously, an abject downer.

It’s so good.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Robert Rossen; screenplay by Sidney Carroll and Rossen, based on the novel by Walter Tevis; director of photography, Eugen Schüfftan; edited by Dede Allen; music by Kenyon Hopkins; production designer, Harry Horner; costume designer, Ruth Morley; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Paul Newman (Eddie Felson), Piper Laurie (Sarah Packard), George C. Scott (Bert Gordon), Myron McCormick (Charlie Burns), Murray Hamilton (Findley), and Jackie Gleason (Minnesota Fats).


All That Jazz (1979, Bob Fosse)

There are few secrets in All That Jazz; the film immediately forecasts where it’s going, with clear shots of star Roy Scheider in the hospital amid the other quickly cut montage sequences. But these are flash forwards, as opposed to the present action and then we’re seeing flashback. Because we’re actually not even seeing “reality” yet. First we meet Jessica Lange, mysterious, magical, dressed in white, in Scheider’s head maybe. These sequences are—except when director Fosse and editor Alan Heim cut them to be so—disconnected from the main narrative. They’re even disconnected from Scheider’s eventual hospital bed hallucinations. They’re not in his imagination, not in his consciousness… maybe it’s his soul. Doesn’t really matter. Putting a noun to it doesn’t change how it functions, giving Fosse and co-writer Robert Alan Aurthur a way to do some show not tell exposition on Scheider’s history as well as give him an egoless outlet.

The film’s present action begins with Broadway director Scheider casting for his next production. Fosse goes through the introduction to Lange, then the quick cut montage sequence of Scheider gearing up for the day (Visine, Dexedrine, cigarettes, positive affirmations), and then gets to the first big dance number. The sequence—Scheider cutting auditioning dancers, then working with the ones who make it—is breathtaking. Set to a live performance (which adds a whole other layer) of George Benson covering “On Broadway,” it’s not just about Fosse’s composition, which showcases both the individual artistry of the dancers but also the scale of the audition as well as Scheider’s place in it, and he and Heim’s editing, which captures movement peerlessly, but also introducing the main supporting cast. Well, minus Ann Reinking. But we meet ex-wife Leland Palmer and daughter Erzsebet Foldi and then the show guys—producers William LeMassena and Robert Hitt, accountant David Margulies, song writer Anthony Holland—from all their various reactions, we get some grounding for Scheider. The show guys are able to tell his not show-minded interest in one of the dancers (Deborah Geffner), which Foldi and Palmer are able to pick up on as well, though they react differently. But Scheider’s not just doing the show, he’s also cutting together a movie, The Stand-Up, about a comedian (played by Cliff Gorman), and running the editing team ragged. It’s also causing Scheider’s contact guy with the studio—Max Wright—nuts.

It’s at the screening of the day’s cuts we meet Reinking, the girlfriend, which is just before we get to see what kind of womanizer everyone’s dealing with. Since leaving the auditions and editing his movie to exhaustion, Scheider’s also had time to ring up Geffner to make a date.

There’s a lot of humanity to Scheider already. The audition sequence, when he’s cutting people, there’s great care in the film to show his hesitations and sympathies. The scene between Scheider and Geffner is where we get to see how Scheider’s empathy has got a strange formula to it. He’s heartbreakingly rude to Geffner, absolutely piggish, but also aware of how his behavior plays out. The asides with Lange have set up Scheider’s convoluted, sorted sexual history with women—Keith Gordon plays him in the flashbacks to working as a young teen in burlesque theaters, where the dancers tease (and don’t tease)—and then we get to see the repercussions of his devout philandering play out with Reinking. Geffner is, apparently, to Reinking as Reinking was to Palmer. Only Palmer’s Scheider’s creative muse—he’s only doing the show so she can headline it—and Reinking’s clearly a good dancer. Geffner is not, adding further complications and giving us a chance to see how Scheider works with his dancers.

The only person Scheider can’t manage—though with Palmer, it’s more she lets him manage her—is Foldi. There’s this amazing scene where Scheider and Foldi dance, with her trying to talk to him about settling down and him workaholicing his way through it, and even though he’s in charge of choreographing the dance, everything she says takes him a little by surprise. The relationship between Scheider and Foldi—well, Foldi and everyone (Reinking and Palmer) have an amazing relationship. In the chaos Scheider drums up so he can control his creative efforts, Foldi’s the only other one able to weather it. Because, like Scheider, she’s native to it.

Scheider’s just cracked the show when the heart troubles go from giving him pause to requiring hospitalization. It’s approximately halfway through the movie. Then there’s the medical drama parts, which race by—once Scheider’s condition improves, Fosse does a lengthy montage sequence, cutting between various moments during Scheider’s hospital stay and some external factors—Foldi’s experience of her dad being hospitalized, the show guys trying to get another director (John Lithgow). Fosse will drop longer scenes in the montage, kind of taking a break before going back to spinning around, seeing all the various moments. It’s all fairly light. Lighter than anything else has been in the film to this point.

So when Scheider’s inability to control his urges hits again and he takes a turn for the worse, it’s time for the hallucination musical numbers. There are four of them, a showcase for Reinking, Palmer, Foldi, and then women in general. They’re all amazing. But whether or not they’re enough to keep Lange’s symbolic lips of Scheider’s….

The choreography of all the sequences is startling. None of them aren’t great. But then there’s how Fosse shoots them too. How Giuseppe Rotunno lights them. How Heim cuts them. It’s extraordinary work.

Scheider’s performance is great. Then Palmer. Then Foldi. Palmer doesn’t get any expository devices with angelic Jessica Langes to establish her character. She barely gets it in the script. She’s got to do it all with looks. She does it. And Foldi’s excellent. Everyone else is good… Reinking has to play a lot with a stone face and she does it well. The show guys are all good. They’re kind of the comic relief. Even as they cover their asses.

Lithgow’s fun.

The music, the dancing, the direction, the technicals… all of it is exceptional. Heim and Fosse’s editing—which is the subject of the movie in the movie subplot, so the editing is begging attention—is singular.

All That Jazz is a peerless motion picture.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Bob Fosse; written by Robert Alan Aurthur and Fosse; director of photography, Giuseppe Rotunno; edited by Alan Heim; music by Ralph Burns; production designer, Philip Rosenberg; costume designer, Albert Wolsky; produced by Aurthur; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Roy Scheider (Joe Gideon), Leland Palmer (Audrey Paris), Erzsebet Foldi (Michelle), Deborah Geffner (Victoria), Ann Reinking (Kate Jagger), William LeMassena (Jonesy Hecht), Anthony Holland (Paul Dann), Robert Hitt (Ted Christopher), David Margulies (Larry Goldie), Max Wright (Joshua Penn), Michael Tolan (Dr. Ballinger), John Lithgow (Lucas Sergeant), Cliff Gorman (Davis Newman), Ben Vereen (O’Connor Flood), Keith Gordon (Young Joe), and Jessica Lange (Angelique).


Barry Lyndon (1975, Stanley Kubrick)

The first half of Barry Lyndon, very nicely delineated on screen with a title card and then an intermission, is a black comedy. The second half is a tragedy. The epilogue explicitly reconciles the two, but there’s also Michael Hordern’s narration, which does the most expository work of anything in the picture. For the most part, Barry Lyndon’s characters are inscrutable. There are occasional exceptions, usually driven from ambiguity by rage—often directed at the titular protagonist, played by Ryan O’Neal—like first nemesis Leonard Rossiter and final nemesis Leon Vitali. Rossiter and Vitali’s souls lay bare. Most everyone else’s do not. Least of all O’Neal’s. O’Neal and his protagonist, subject of the narration but not the film, are forever a mystery. The narration often will describe O’Neal’s actions and reactions, even their motivations, but sometimes not. For example, in the first half of the film, when O’Neal deserts and assumes the identity of an officer, we never know why O’Neal doesn’t put more work into his disguise. In the second half, and far more consequentially for everyone, it’s never clear if O’Neal knocking off the drinking and carousing once he marries rich widow Marisa Berenson is sincere and, regardless, what made him knock it off.

Part one of the film follows O’Neal from poverty in Ireland to military success—albeit enlisted—in the Seven Years War on the continent, then his escape from the military into professional gambling, which leads him to Berenson. The scene where O’Neal seduces Berenson is exquisite and singular, a sublime mix of various movie magics—Kubrick’s direction, the actors silent looks exchanged over a card game, John Alcott’s glorious, gorgeous lighting, Tony Lawson’s editing, the music—the film’s main theme is a Handel piece, which Kubrick trains the audience throughout the first half to recognize for what it accompanies dramatically and then is able to use it later to amplify sequences—not to mention Ken Adam’s production design, Milena Canonero and Ulla-Britt Söderlund’s costumes. Every frame of Barry Lyndon is resplendent in one way or another, often in many ways. Kubrick doesn’t do a lot of camera movements, instead relying on zooms to reveal and hide various actions.

Part two of the film is O’Neal and Berenson’s marriage, complicated by his mother (Marie Kean) and her son (Dominic Savage then Leon Vitali), amongst others—not to mention O’Neal’s callousness and cruelty as he assumes control of Berenson’s riches. He’d seduced her while her first husband, aged Frank Middlemass, was still alive and, once his prize is secured, he becomes quite the dick. Again, it’s impossible to know whether O’Neal was always a dick—he’d picked out Berenson as a target, during his days with mentor Patrick Magee, a fellow Irishman pretending to be a Frenchman to card sharp around Europe. O’Neal’s his committed sidekick.

O’Neal and Berenson’s eventual child, David Morley, provides a kind of touchstone for everyone to connect around, even Vitali, who’s seen through O’Neal the whole time and hates him. But it also ends up being Morley who will finally break Vitali’s fragile place in this home he loathes, with his final outburst arguably setting everyone’s lives on a path of destruction. The narrator tells the audience when it’s all too late, some fifty minutes before the end of the film, announcing when it’s time to prepare for the descent, a luxury the characters are without.

The first part of the film is full of entertaining supporting cast members, a somewhat eclectic, somewhat mundane bunch O’Neal meets as his destiny—already rerouted in youth as his father died in a duel just after securing stable employment—moves towards its inevitable conclusion. There’s cousin Gay Hamilton, who teaches O’Neal his way around a woman—it’s unclear how young thirty-two year-old O’Neal is supposed to be playing, but it’s like… seventeen or something. And O’Neal’s frequently blank look is perfect. One of the mysteries is how much O’Neal is grokking things around around him. The Hamilton stuff, at least then O’Neal’s naivety isn’t in question. Hamilton isn’t seriously going to marry her cousin so she warms up to a British officer, aforementioned first nemesis Rossiter, who O’Neal has no problem confronting and making his first duel. The film opens with O’Neal’s father’s death in the duel, so it’s always hanging around. O’Neal is actually fearless while his betters pretend to be and he wields that situation for his own class improvement. Again, does he do it consciously or instinctively… it’s intentionally unclear.

Because while O’Neal is an interesting historical figure to track through these turbulent times, he’s not a sympathetic one. He’s more sympathetic than many and he frequently deserves at least a measure of empathy, he’s never Kubrick’s tragic hero. The tragic hero of the film, its actual subject but not protagonist (because it’s not possible for her to be one) is Berenson. There are tragedies abound in the second part of Lyndon and none of them don’t serve to further devastate Berenson, who weathers them all onscreen in silence, with Kubrick and Alcott’s camera and then Lawson’s cuts all scrutinizing her. O’Neal gives a fantastic performance in Barry Lyndon, but Berenson is the performance the film hinges on. She’s got to convey all the answers without addressing them—or having them addressed in the narration—while O’Neal gets to embrace the inscrutability because, well, he’s a man. And the men of Barry Lyndon place very little value on anything.

The film doesn’t engage much with the fatalism of dueling culture but it’s ever-present. It lurks in the background, waiting for an opportunity to lunge. Similarly, while the first half of Barry Lyndon is very much a war film, it never greatly engages with it; often it’ll happen out-of-shot, but heard, a technique Kubrick utilizes to great effect throughout the first half. Reaction shots from the listener without showing this line or that line being spoken. Eventually it scales up to be the gunfire, which Kubrick actually foreshadows without sound effects earlier in the film. It’s all very intricate, very precise, very delicate.

Everything needs to work for the third act, say the last fifty or so minutes, to deliberately walk its tightrope.

Most everyone O’Neal meets along his way are distinct and excellent—Arthur O'Sullivan’s highwayman only gets a couple scenes but is memorable, Godfrey Quigley’s kindly captain is the closest thing O’Neal, the film, and the audience have to a wholesome role model. Murray Melvin is excellent as Berenson’s personal reverend. Philip Stone’s good as the suffering estate accountant.

Vitali’s got the hardest part in the film and he pulls it off. He manages to be loathsome—he always saves some of his lashings out for Berenson, spitting venom at her once he’s got everyone’s attention—and hateful but never exactly villainous. He’s a very interesting mirror for O’Neal, though neither (apparently) acknowledges it.

Barry Lyndon, especially in the first half, is a history lesson (of sorts); it examines particular times and places, particular cultural norms and mores, without engaging with the larger scale historical events passing. The second half just focuses it in more, examining the participants of the unfolding drama, watching them struggle with their historical contexts… doomed by them, actually. But with a sense of humor about it.

It’s a singular motion picture, always grandiose but never unwieldy, with a superb script from Kubrick, every technical contribution an achievement, and perfect performances. There’s nothing else like it.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick; screenplay by Kubrick, based on a novel by William Makepeace Thackeray; director of photography, John Alcott; edited by Tony Lawson; production designer, Ken Adam; costume designers, Milena Canonero and Ulla-Britt Söderlund; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Ryan O’Neal (Barry Lyndon), Marisa Berenson (Lady Honoria Lyndon), Leon Vitali (Lord Bullingdon), Marie Kean (Mrs. Barry), David Morley (Bryan Patrick Lyndon), Murray Melvin (Rev. Samuel Runt), Philip Stone (Graham), Patrick Magee (The Chevalier du Balibari), Gay Hamilton (Nora Brady), Leonard Rossiter (Capt. John Quin), Godfrey Quigley (Capt. Grogan), Hardy Krüger (Capt. Potzdorf), Steven Berkoff (Lord Ludd), Diana Körner (Lischen), Frank Middlemass (Sir Charles Lyndon), Dominic Savage (Young Bullingdon), and Arthur O’Sullivan (Capt. Feeny); narrated by Michael Hordern.


Little Women (2019, Greta Gerwig)

Little Women has two parallel timelines. There’s the present, starting in post-Civil War New York City with teacher and pulp writer Saoirse Ronan living in boarding house (where she also teaches). Then it flashes back to Ronan’s life seven years earlier, at home in rural Massachusetts; she’s the second oldest of four sisters; oldest is Emma Watson, youngest is Eliza Scanlen, Florence Pugh is second-youngest. Pugh sees Ronan as an adversary for the world’s attention while Ronan might see Pugh as annoyance but often doesn’t see her at all. For the first half of the film, the flashbacks are steady. We meet mom Laura Dern, who volunteers all her time to help the war effort, the husband and father off in the (Union) Army, the girls fending for themselves as far as attention goes.

Ronan’s always been the writer—writing plays for them to act out—Watson’s the actor, Pugh’s the painter, Scanlen’s the musician. The flashbacks reveal how these talents flourished during the home front days. At a party, Ronan meets the new neighbor, similarly aged Timothée Chalamet, newly orphaned and now living with his grandfather, rich guy Chris Cooper. Chalamet and Ronan are both socially awkward wallflowers but extroverted ones, so they immediately hit it off. And through Chalamet, the families reconnect and become good friends, with Cooper opening his house to the sisters, offering to share in the intellectual wealth. There are books for Ronan, paintings for Pugh, a piano for Scanlen… and James Norton for Watson.

Norton is Chalamet’s tutor, penniless and just the right kind of dreamy for Watson.

Of course, seeing them meet and gently fall in love comes in a different context thanks to director (and screenwriter) Gerwig’s bifurcated narrative. We’ve seen their less than glamorous present—in fact, when they marry and move into the same house we’ve seen in the future… it’s a bittersweet moment. Watson’s the one sister with the express dream of having a family and while Ronan can still write, Pugh can still paint, Watson’s getting frustrated. So her flashbacks have the shadow of the future cast against them, which really neatly resolves in an echo in the third act, but still… it’s rough seeing her dreams stalling.

Pugh’s also giving up on her dreams in the present, deciding she’s only ever going to be an excellent painter and never a genius, even though she agrees with Chalamet the all-male academy in charge of assigning genius is severely wanting. The film’s got a lot of discussions about a woman’s potential, but the ones between Pugh and Chalamet are striking, maybe because the most we know abut Chalamet to start is Ronan’s going to turn down a marriage proposal someday. Even as the film—in the present—discusses events in the past, Gerwig never goes so far as to promise they’re going to get played out onscreen. So when the film actually does the marriage proposal flashback and it cuts through Chalamet and Ronan; even though we’ve spent most of the film with them past this trauma, it’s even sharper, even bloodier, for knowing the characters better. For having seen them develop to this point and then past it.

Little Women’s flashback device is fairly singular. It’s not a piece where the story is in the flashback (but it’s also not one where the story isn’t in the flashback), it’s not a piece where the protagonist drifts between; in fact, once you realize what’s going on in the present, the film checking in with anyone besides Ronan is mildly unwelcome. There’s nothing good waiting in the present for anyone it seems, whereas the past is full of laughter, music, dancing, celebration. But the flashbacks also aren’t for happy moments, the present for the sad. And even when the correspond with one another, even when Gerwig’s doing it for best effect, they’re not for echoing either. Gerwig’s an exceptionally “hands off” director as far as style goes, she never tries to show up the unfolding production; every choice furthers the film as a whole. The flashbacks and the present compliment one another for the film’s sake, which isn’t even the same thing as for the characters’ sake. Ronan and Pugh in the present get character studies while Watson gets some of one in the past, but Gerwig uses that approach to further things later on. Ronan and Pugh’s adversarial relationship exists mostly in the characters’ (and viewers’) perceptions. The tight focus on the actors in the first act and half means later on, when Gerwig’s got a lot more group-based, epical action to deal with, Ronan, Pugh, and Watson have a lot more inherent heft.

Meanwhile Scanlen, grown up watching her sisters and seeing their hopes and dreams rise and fall, has wisdom, just not the wisdom her sisters need (or know they need) because it’s all very messy. Of the four sisters, Scanlen is the one with the most obvious possibility for her talent. The stage isn’t in Watson’s cards because she’s too middle class, Pugh and Ronan have major obstacles in any pursuit to get paid for their artistic talents, but Scanlen’s piano playing seems within the realm of possibility. Not too lofty a dream for a young woman in the late nineteenth century.

All of the sisters, in one way or another, are acutely aware of their situations. Watson knows marrying penniless but dreamy Norton means hard work and a hard life. Ronan and Pugh both know a woman’s best potential from rich aunt Meryl Streep, who revels in crushing her nieces’ artistic dreams with the hard facts about what a woman can and cannot do. Well, she revels in it initially, but once Streep gets talking about the situation, the mean-spiritedness fades fast, as she hears the terrible words she’s speaking. The best any of the sisters can hope for is Pugh marrying a rich man who’ll let her take care of them all, including parents Dern and Bob Odenkirk. When we finally get to see Streep and Odenkirk together, after she’s spent the film running him down, is a fantastic moment; Gerwig’s able to get in emotional gut punches thanks to the flashback structure, but she’s also able reverse it and fill the moments with joy.

The film’s constant isn’t joy, however, not on its own. It’s anger. And maybe joy in spite of anger. Maybe at the start of the second act, in flashback, Dern has a talk with Ronan about how Dern—who we’ve seen as a homemaking saint to this point—has a secret no one has ever guessed. Well, except maybe Streep. She lives in a constant state of anger at the world, at the unfairness of it, the evil in it, and refuses to let it better her.

At this moment, Dern frankly becomes the most interesting performance in the entire film. She and Ronan are phenomenal together and Ronan’s great, Pugh’s great, Chalamet’s excellent, but when Dern’s in a scene, you watch Dern. You want to understand how Dern is getting through this moment. But also Ronan. Ronan’s inherited the blinding anger and works to quell it, which—again thanks to the structure—informs all her scenes previous to the conversation with Dern… including the present day ones. The flashbacks inform on the characters in the present, sort of bake in textures in real-time, but with Ronan, it’s like she gets an additional two layers of depth with the wave of a wand or flick of a fountain pen. It’s awesome.

Because even with—I think dazzling is the about the only appropriately enthusiastic adjective—even with dazzling performances from Pugh, Chalamet, Dern, Streep, and excellent ones from Watson, Scanlen, Cooper, it’s Ronan’s film. Gerwig gives her this big silent acting moment, when what plays across Ronan’s face is what Little Women leaves its audience with, it’s all about Ronan. And her anger and her joy. And what she does with both of them. It’s a breathtaking finale, with the film’s perfect score (by Alexandre Desplat) accompanying. Even though she’s adapting an oft-adapted novel, Gerwig pushes the ending until it’s right for the adaptation, collapsing flashback and flash forward, dream and reality, until it can hinge solely on Ronan’s expressions as she reacts to the culminating moment.

And Gerwig and Ronan nail it because of course they do. The last thirty minutes of Little Women, if it didn’t bombard the emotions, tugging and shoving between happy angry sobs and sad angry sobs—I’m not even sure why I was crying at the very end, though I know Desplat didn’t help—the last thirty minutes would be a victory lap. Just due to the nature of the plot, Gerwig’s hardest “sell” comes at the end of the second act, beginning of the third. So when she and the film are able to keep climbing instead of just sailing to the finish, it’s glorious. And sad. And joyous. And sad.

It’s spectacular work. Everything technical is outstanding—Gerwig’s direction, Yorick Le Saux’s photography, Nick Houy’s editing, Desplat’s music, Jess Gonchor’s production design is breathtaking; Jacqueline Durran’s costumes are superlative. Little Women looks—and sounds (not just the score, the sound editing is great)—amazing.

I mean, it’s capital, obviously.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Greta Gerwig; screenplay by Gerwig, based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott; director of photography, Yorick Le Saux; edited by Nick Houy; music by Alexandre Desplat; production designer, Jess Gonchor; costume designer, Jacqueline Durran; produced by Amy Pascal, Denise Di Novi, and Robin Swicord; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Saoirse Ronan (Jo March), Emma Watson (Meg March), Florence Pugh (Amy March), Eliza Scanlen (Beth March), Laura Dern (Marmee March), Timothée Chalamet (Laurie), Tracy Letts (Mr. Dashwood), Bob Odenkirk (Father March), James Norton (John Brooke), Louis Garrel (Friedrich Bhaer), Jayne Houdyshell (Hannah), Chris Cooper (Mr. Laurence), and Meryl Streep (Aunt March).