2019, R, 111 min. Directed by Jake Scott. Starring Sienna Miller, Sky Ferreira, Christina Hendricks, Will Sasso, Aaron Paul, Amy Madigan.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., June 14, 2019
There's no wound deeper than uncertainty. Someone dies, you find the body, and it's terrible, but at least you know what happened. Not knowing, that's the knife that keeps twisting.
At 31, Deb (Miller) has been a mom longer than she's been an adult and now she's a grandmother too, courtesy of her daughter Bridget (Ferreira). She's got a life she likes in her small Pennsylvania town, an OK job as a grocery store cashier with folks she gets along with, and her happily independent streak means she prefers to be a mistress than a wife. She's a good mom, though, and Bridget's doing as well as she did, and she didn't turn out so bad. And then Bridget disappears and everything goes to shit, and Deb has to work out who she is and where to go next.
From Gone Girl onward, the "missing, presumed dead" trope has been a fixture of American crime drama: But American Woman is less a whodunit and more a what happens next. Scriptwriter Brad Ingelsby has taken on the personal impact of crime in grimy-blue-collar middle America before, most notably with Out of the Furnace, but this is a character study, more akin to the Ozark meth-head bluegrass of Winter's Bone or the raw elegy of Debra Granik's remarkable Leave No Trace. His script is a longitudinal study of a life, one where a shadow never quite lifts even on the brightest days.
Ever since Charlize Theron's transformation into serial killer Aileen Wuornos for 2003's Monster, there's been the lazy, rote accusation of actresses slumming it in unglamorous roles just to score critical points. That's definitely not Deb, not least because Miller leans into how proud she is that she can still rock a tube dress and keep the local men on their toes. At the same time, Miller roots Deb's growth in her damaged scrappiness, like how she deals with her grandson: She just rolls her sleeves up and gets on with it, becoming a mom again rather than a grandmother. Yet she's also carrying her pain, and it's in the habits that won't die and the new customs of extended grieving, like a 22nd birthday party for Bridget even when she's been missing for years. Most of all, it's in Deb still having a life to lead, still having to look after her responsibilities, still spending time with her sister (Hendricks, eschewing her glamorous persona for maternal support) and still bickering with her mom (Madigan). It's not a portrait of superpowered survival, but instead a decade-long journal of ebbs and flows, of bad dates and good ones, of working out what to do next when you're not getting those hefty twentysomething waitress tips anymore, of never quite knowing when someone will say something and it all comes flooding back.
American Woman lives in the quiet spaces of Deb's life. Always suitably understated, it remembers that loss doesn't always swallow a life, but it always leaves a void.