Abner Pastoll’s thriller A Good Woman Is Hard to Find opens with its main character, Sarah Collins (Sarah Bolger), naked and covered in blood, getting into the shower to wash off the evidence of some clearly horrific incident. But it then takes nearly an hour to get back to that point, turning from a gritty exploitation movie into the kind of kitchen-sink British working-class drama created by filmmakers like Ken Loach or Mike Leigh.
Sarah lives on a Belfast council estate with her two young children, Lucy (Macie McCauley) and Ben (Rudy Doherty), and is struggling to make ends meet after the murder of her husband. She enters the grocery store with a strict budget down to the last penny, and she’s still harassed by a condescending, leering employee, who obviously targets her for her poverty and her gender. When she goes to the police station for an update on her husband’s case, she isn’t able to get past the front desk. She’s told to go home and forget all about it. Even her mother speaks ill of her late husband and pleads with her to move away from her rough neighborhood.
Sarah’s mother probably has a point because one day Sarah is accosted by local hoodlum, Tito (Andrew Simpson), who’s just robbed a cache of drugs from some very dangerous local dealers and broken into Sarah’s house to hide out from the people chasing him. Under threat of violence, he uses Sarah’s home as a hiding place for his stash, insisting she take a cut of the proceeds. Even as Sarah and her kids are increasingly in danger, the movie stays fairly grounded and low-key, and Tito is less of an unhinged psychopath than just a confused, misguided loser who can’t control his anger.
Even with a pair of goons looking for Tito, the movie maintains that measured pace until its final act, when it belatedly turns into the kind of grindhouse-style revenge thriller promised by the opening scene. That makes the occasional check-ins with cartoonishly menacing crime boss Leo Miller (Edward Hogg) especially jarring when they come in between quiet scenes of Sarah dealing with her scared kids or arguing with her mother.
TV veteran Bolger makes the most of her chance for a substantial lead role, and Sarah’s anguish over her husband’s murder and frustration at her circumstances feel genuine. At the same time, the story is slow and meandering, with underdeveloped characters and subplots. Traumatized by witnessing his father’s murder, Ben no longer speaks, but aside from one brief appointment with a therapist, his emotional distress is largely ignored. Sarah’s relationships with her kids and her mother are loosely sketched, although there is one scene late in the movie that shows the deeper connection between mother and daughter.
Tito, too, is an inconsistent character, both threatening and ingratiating. But what could be regarded as complex characterization is instead just a means to an end to push Sarah into an even more desperate position as the movie heads into its climax. There’s nothing wrong with positioning the supporting characters to further Sarah’s development, but it makes nearly two-thirds of the movie feel like protracted set-up, and the subdued dramatic tone is at odds with the revenge-thriller feel of the finale.
Once Sarah goes past the point of no return, though, the movie comes to life, and Bolger’s performance as the righteously vengeful Sarah is even stronger than her performance as the depressed, downtrodden Sarah. The contrast between the movie’s clashing tones works effectively when Pastoll is showing flashes of Sarah’s violent frenzy while she attempts to have a calm conversation with her mother, and in general the more that Sarah has to deal with extreme situations, the more powerful the movie becomes.
Unfortunately, by that point the movie is nearly over, and while the climactic confrontation features one of the most entertainingly nasty places to hide a gun, it’s not quite enough to make up for the lethargy of the first hour or so. Although Pastoll and screenwriter Ronan Blaney attempt to connect Sarah’s family trauma to her battle with Leo and his henchmen, it’s hard to take that distress seriously when it’s directed at such a silly villain. Sure, Leo tortures Tito’s associates to extract information, but with his weird obsession with proper grammar and maniacal grin, he’s far more laughable than scary.
In the end, Sarah is closer to the Punisher or Jennifer Garner’s character from Peppermint than a harried working-class mother, and the visual style turns neon-soaked and garish to match. A brief post-credits stinger suggests a further career for Sarah as a vigilante, but the movie equivocates for too long on its way there. A Good Woman Is Hard to Find is a grimy exploitation movie trying too hard to seem respectable.
Starring Sarah Bolger, Edward Hogg, Andrew Simpson, Macie McCauley and Rudy Doherty, A Good Woman Is Hard to Find is available Friday on VOD.
A Good Woman Is Hard to Find's subdued dramatic tone is at odds with the revenge-thriller feel of the finale.