In her writing (The Keeping Room) and the bulk of her four co-writer/director credits to date Julia Hart has set out her stall as a storyteller who frames stories that we might more traditionally see from a male point of view through a female protagonist. In this case that story is a 70s set crime thriller about Jean (Rachel Brosnahan), who is forced to go on the run with her baby—or rather, the one her husband Eddie (Bill Heck) brought home a few weeks ago—and Cal (Arinzé Kene), a man she doesn’t know, after Eddie betrays the criminal gang he’s part of.
Most other tellings of this story would, indeed have, revolve around the man. We’d see what Eddie did, first to get the baby and then to upset his crew. We’d know how Cal became the person to find Jean a safe house and to protect her, we’d follow as the gang tried to track her down. That would have been a perfectly good movie, but this is a more interesting one. By stripping all that, or at least the on screen depiction of it, away we are unavoidably thrown into Jean’s disorienting situation. Rachel Brosnahan is excellent as Jean is at first thrown off by everything from the baby to being on the run without prior warning or much in the way of explanation, but slowly gains in confidence and resolve throughout. She’s well matched by Arinzé Kene as Cal; doing his job, but clearly holding back more than just the basic information about Eddie and what has happened to force this drastic measure. Hart again resists convention by never making the tension between Cal and Jean sexual, and by making sure that even after this man enters the narrative, it remains resolutely the woman’s story, even when she does need saving.
Because we only see one side of the conflict, the tension is ratcheted up almost unbearably at times. When Jean is in her first safe house there is an almost chest tightening anxiety about the scenes in which a neighbour (Marceline Hugot) shows up at her door. Neither she nor we are ever allowed to be sure whether this friendly seeming middle-aged woman is actually just welcoming her to the house, or if she might be spying on Jean. The second half of the film moves Jean to a different, more isolated, place but also gives her people to interact with in the shape of Cal’s family, including his father (Frankie Faison) and his wife, Teri (Marsha Stephanie Blake). The dynamic between Jean and Teri, shaped along the way by revelations of shared history, is one of the most interesting in the film and it’s easy to see how Jean draws on some of Teri’s toughness as the film runs on. The acting is excellent all round and Brosnahan develops contrasting but convincing relationships with Kene and Marsha Stephanie Blake as Cal and Teri.
Hart’s screenplay (written with her husband Jordan Horowitz) and her direction are taut. Both are perhaps most effective in what they hold back. Directorially, the period detail is convincing but not flashy; the soundtrack isn’t slathered with 70s standards as shorthand, rather it’s in the details of the design and, perhaps most notably, in the pacing, from scene to scene and shot to shot. Hart is able to draw suspense out of stillness, as in a scene when Jean has dinner with her neighbour and also out of motion, whether in a moment when Cal and Jean have to take baby out of a hospital or in the confusion of a gunfight, which we experience entirely through the chaos and confusion of Jean and the others around her trying to find a way through and out of it. In this respect it’s also worth noting the contribution of editors Shayar Bhansali and Tracey Wadmore-Smith, whose work is key to the way the film is able to eke tension particularly out of silent moments. There is similar restraint in the writing, which never allows its characters to waste a word; there’s no forced terseness here, just a sense, especially in the writing of Cal and later his family, that the less that needs to be divulged out loud, the safer everyone will be.
The somewhat open ending will seem abrupt to some, but it works in much the same way as the film has taken us from one uncertain moment to another. Both the audience and Jean may know more about her situation by the time the end title comes up, but neither can be sure of what’s going to happen much beyond that moment, and in to some degree leaving us and her lead hanging, Hart ends the film on the same note of tension she has sustained throughout. It’s both fitting and effective.