Two Movies, Two Women, and Two Tests of Character and Conscience

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Two Movies, Two Women, and Two Tests of Character and Conscience

The best new films you've never heard of tell the stories of working-class women—a real estate agent and a factory worker—with scenes of ethical crises and life-changing decisions as compelling as higher profile films like American Sniper.

Two recent films—Something, Anything and Two Days, One Night—have just become available now on various View On Demand services like Netflix, iTunes, Vudu.com, YouTube, and Google Play. And they’d make a memorable double feature, due to all of the things they have in common.

For example, they’re both about women who suffer crises of conscience in relation to their day jobs. That may not sound like the most compelling big-screen subject, I know. But give these movies a chance. I saw all of the Oscar hopefuls, and none of them have stayed with me as powerfully as these unpredictable, suspenseful, and richly rewarding films. Their central characters—Peggy and Sandra—might challenge you, as they challenged me, to consider how you would handle ethical challenges like those that they face in these films.

Both films are exquisitely crafted and award-worthy for the performances of their leading ladies: Newcomer Ashley Shelton plays Peggy; Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard plays Sandra.

Both are masterfully directed. Two Days, One Night comes from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne—favorites of the Cannes Film Festival and heralded around the world as two of the greatest filmmakers alive. They’ve made another perfectly calibrated parable, characterized by the tough realism that has made all of their previous releases, including The Son and The Kid With a Bike, into contemporary classics. Something, Anything is the directorial debut of Paul Harrill, who looks like a world-class filmmaker already. He’s given us an intimate character study, wisely skipping scenes that other directors would have included merely for their emotional histrionics.

But what stands out most about both of these films is that they find, in these unglamorous stories of working-class women, compelling scenes of ethical crises and life-changing decisions that seem as compelling and substantial as anything in the recent Oscar-nominated films like American Sniper and The Imitation Game.

Peggy the Realtor and the Search for a Heart’s True Home

Something, Anything is a quietly observant film about a woman who realizes that she has allowed others to persuade her into a life made of values and expectations that are theirs not hers. And so she sets out to discover who she really is, what she really wants, and—most importantly—what she really needs.

The film opens with Peggy’s seemingly half-hearted acceptance of a marriage proposal and moves quickly through familiar pre-wedding rituals, the big event, and the first days in a new home. But when Peggy suffers a traumatic health crisis and loss, we see the true nature of the life that awaits her. And it suddenly dawns on her just how truly neglected, unloved, and—worst of all—unknown she really is.

So there’s irony in the fact that Peggy, who works as a realtor—entrusted with the hopes and dreams of those who need new homes and those who need to sell them—is the one who seems truly homeless.

After her ordeal, Peggy separates from her husband Mark (Bryce Johnson) and takes refuge at her parents' house where they offer her the best kind of help they can muster: an offer of a trip to Europe. But no—this is not going to be a story about how a troubled young woman runs away to find herself in the joys of self-indulgence. This is not Eat, Pray, Love. Peggy is following a still, small voice toward a transformation that begins with the heart instead of the senses.

It’s to Harrill’s credit that Peggy’s parents don’t come across as bone-headedly ignorant. They seem well-intentioned, just naïve. Even better, where other filmmakers might have made monsters out of Peggy’s materialistic and insensitive “friends”—women who cannot comprehend why anyone would question their own values and choices—Harrill treats them as human beings with good intentions and genuine concern for their friend.

Nevertheless, Shelton’s beautiful performance as Peggy makes her deeply sympathetic so that we feel the pain of every unthinking remark that pierces her fragile heart. It’s easy to see how almost everything about her life has become false and painful. (One of the film’s smartest and subtlest details: Peggy was formerly a competitive cheerleader. But now, existing as a sort of “cheerleader” for Mark, the way her friends are cheerleaders for their own husbands, she looks like someone who just heard St. Vincent sing “But I don’t want to be a cheerleader/no more.”)

We can feel Peggy’s troubles reach a tipping point when things at the office take a nasty turn. Taking on the case of some clients who recently lost their own vocational dreams and their savings, she makes it her mission to find them the best possible offer on their house. But then her boss pushes her to conceal an excellent offer and present them with a lesser one instead—because it will make more money for the company. While Peggy’s ordeal has left her wounded and uncertain, it has also made her more empathetic—she listens with such compassion and care that her clients begin opening up to her as if they’re seeing a therapist instead of a realtor.

And so Peggy makes a choice that comes as a confounding surprise to her whole community: she leaves her job for a lower-paying and far less glamorous job as a public librarian.

While leaving her husband was a flight from trouble, her decision to become a librarian is a deliberate step toward finding her true self. In the quiet of those book-stuffed aisles, she can explore her thoughts as they engage ideas. Watch closely, and you’ll catch a clue of where she’s headed: she’s seen carrying a copy of Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain.

Why is Peggy reading Merton? Why is she suddenly interested in the Bible? Peggy has received a sympathy note from Tim, a man she remembers from high school. Her curiosity leads her to a startling revelation: this quiet, unusual fellow has become a Trappist monk at a monastery in Kentucky. In fact, it’s the Abbey of Our Lady at Gethsemani—the very place where Thomas Merton wrote his beloved spiritual reflections.

Drawn intuitively toward Tim and his remarkable decision to live a monk’s life of simplicity and quiet, Peggy sets out on a journey of her own—not to Europe for adventure and excitement but to the mystery of the monastery.

No, Something, Anything is not a so-called “Christian movie”: it’s not building to an epiphanic surrender to Jesus. Not yet, anyway. Rather, this chapter in her story takes her from the Stage One Quiet of the library to find a Stage Two Quiet: a still point where she can become more attuned to that delicate machinery of her heart’s compass.

What unfolds is not a story about “How Peggy Got Her Groove Back.” Instead, it’s that rarest of cinematic subjects: the awakening of a spiritual impulse by the quiet coaxing of conscience—the kind of thing that can change, and even save, a life.

Sandra the Factory Worker and the Quest for a Second Chance

In Two Days, One Night, Sandra wakes to precarious days of relentless demands. She must struggle and strive to earn income at a local factory, to feed her family, to manage her medication, and to cope with heavy depression.

The depression is the most daunting challenge of all. In spite of her loving family, Sandra is thrown about on the riptides of emotional affliction, feeling empty and worthless despite the relentless reassurances and support of her husband, Manu. (It’s worth noting that Manu—Fabrizio Rongione in a perfectly understated performance—is a rare wonder in the history of movies. How often do we see a husband who is completely devoted to supporting, encouraging, and loving his wife unconditionally?)

As the film begins, things take a terrible turn for the worse: Sandra has lost her job because, while she was on sick leave, her boss forced her coworkers to choose between taking her back or keeping their annual bonuses. Despite her family’s love, Sandra now faces the fight of her life. Coached by the few who care about her, she agrees to seek out each of the coworkers who rejected her in order to beg for mercy. She wants a re-vote. And as she hurries around town racing against the clock, we can see the jaws of her depression opening to swallow her up all over again.

It’s impossible not to root for Sandra on her unlikely quest. As she visits each coworker, she learns, sure enough, that some of them are just greedy; they want bonuses no matter what happens to her. But she also discovers that others are living on the edge financially, and taking her back would cost them severely. Clearly there was much at stake in that ugly choice they were forced to make between kindness and cash. What should she do? What would you do?

Sandra’s desperate mission becomes a tour of burdens borne by the working class. And yet it never becomes overtly political or preachy. The Dardenne brothers are famous for their naturalistic style, their brilliant work with actors, and the way they turn working class stories into dramas as nerve-wracking as any thriller. Two Days, One Night is no exception. But watch carefully: you may notice some subtle visual poetry. Note the recurrence of carrot orange throughout the film—from the soup that revives Sandra to the sun-like glow through the car windshield during a rare outburst of joyous laughter in the middle of the crises. The color comes to signify moments of nourishment, health, grace, and joy.

And it is all leading to two crucial tests of conscience—one for Sandra’s coworkers and one for herself. You won’t read anything more specific about the ending here: do your best to avoid spoilers about the movie’s stunning last-minute turn. The Dardennes have crafted a powerful story about courage, hope, and virtue. It’s likely to leave you exhausted by the suspense and, even better, inspired by its courageous conclusion.

Two Women, Two Conflicts of Interest, Two Inspirational Films

Neither Something, Anything nor Two Days, One Night are as conventionally dramatic or “important” as the big issue-driven films that stirred up Oscar hype. (Yes, Marion Cotillard was nominated for Best Actress, but how many moviegoers do you know who saw and discussed her movie?) But for this moviegoer, both are among the most memorable and thought-provoking films of the decade so far.

As Steven Greydanus, my favorite film critic, writes in his Two Days review at Crux,

I can think of no film that more persuasively or powerfully illustrates in human terms what popes from Leo XIII to Francis have been talking about for more than a century regarding the dangers of pure capitalism unrestrained by moral concerns.

I would dare to say that Something, Anything provides the same kind of challenge with even subtler brushstrokes.

Both films are master classes in cinema. Watch them closely, and you may find that such careful attention to the mysterious nature of the human heart influences your own decision-making as you face challenges to your character and conscience in the workplace.