Can you hear the rumbling? It was Dan Bern who said “I feel like things are turning like a cool country kiss,” or on a more grandiose note it was JFK who said “So let us begin anew.” What the hell am I talking about? What do these whispers on the wind mean? It means the REAL movie season is here, and the leader of the new brigade is The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio. The real movies are arriving, and not a moment too soon! Hollywood’s been beaten up pretty solidly this year and it’s good to see there are still a few haymakers left, a few tricks remaining in the magic bag. Put your ground to the ear and give thanks that some real art and entertainment is coming.
The basic plot of The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio is of Julianne Moore’s portrayal of a mother of ten children in Ohio who enters contests to make ends meet in the fifties and sixties. She is essentially known as “Mother” throughout the film although she’s credited as Evelyn Ryan. Her husband is played capably by Woody Harrelson as “Father” or Kelly. Their story is the struggle to pay bills, her creative writing, the “kitsch” feel of the contest era, paternal relationships, alcohol abuse and many other subtle subplots. Defiance is a film with a ton of concepts and complexity, a delicious enterprise after so many unsatisfying summer films. It is also based on a true story which certainly lends to its relevance. I don’t even want to mention that it has the best “iron lung” scene since The Big Lebowski because you might set your expectations too damn high.
I only have two real problems with this technically wonderful film. The first is the opening credits. They are simply too long and too selfish, get us connected to the movie already! I’ve always considered opening credits a vanity grab so perhaps that’s just my own pet peeve. The only other significant complaint I have is the ten children tend to blend together with the exception of daughter “Tuff” Ryan. In the film’s defense working ten kids into any decent movie would probably be impossible and they at least attempt to flesh out a few of the others.
The greatness of The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio is much easier to expand upon. Woody Harrelson and Julianne Moore both give the best performances of their respective careers. Well, maybe Moore was a smidge better in Magnolia, close call. The role at first seems like a knock-off of her character in Far from Heaven but thankfully it turns into something far juicier. She speaks directly into the camera at times, which is handled well. She makes us feel the expectations in trying to be the perfect mother and wife, trying to conjure creative limericks for contests, and managing her husband’s disastrous mood swings. Harrelson plays a drunk, but a drunk with some texture to him. This isn’t a one note performance, and it gives his time on screen a real suspense. Like the mother and children, you’re not sure if he’s going to explode or laugh when he’s tanked. This is a more authentic alcoholic performance and I salute director Jane Anderson for not going the easy route.
Laura Dern is also Oscar good in ten minutes of this film. If Alan Alda can get a nomination in The Aviator then Dern should be right in line with this performance. Dern’s character is a contester as well who takes Evelyn into her social group of fellow contesters. The screen simply sparkles with her.
Great movies build upon moments, which are used to elevate the picture higher and higher until the chance comes to seize your heart and mind. Bad movies don’t build at all, and good movies build but don’t fully seize you when that critical moment comes. The great ones, the ones we all remember, hold on to that moment and don’t let go. The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio is a film of that magnitude, and it signals the trumpet for the real fun to begin.