Today: June 12, 2024

May December

Taking the case of Mary Kay Letourneau – a convicted sex offender who ended up marrying her victim after she was released from prison – as inspiration, May December weaves a mysterious, morally ambiguous and always gripping story.

Many years after Gracie (Julianne Moore) is released from prison and has raised a family with her victim Joe (Charles Melton) the couple agree to a film being made about their lives. As part of the agreement they allow actor Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) into their home to research the family and better understand the relationships within. With the couple pretending like the scandal of their marriage is no longer an issue, Elizabeth embarks on a mission to uncover as much as she can. In doing so she opens old wounds and realises that the tabloid story is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Gracie. 

May December is an incredibly fascinating and often darkly funny character dissection. It is a film that seduces you into its twisted little dynamic. From the outset it wants to put you on edge, even the tranquil family dynamic feels off, their otherwise happy exteriors thinly veiling a sense of controlling danger that Gracie projects in almost everything she does. 

Todd Haynes is a filmmaker who revels in getting under the skin of deeply rich and flawed characters. At one point Elizabeth states she’s drawn to roles where she can examine the moral grey areas. It is a scene that perfectly captures the tone and feel Haynes has achieved. Even when you think you know everything, you probably don’t. The way Gracie has justified her decisions is interesting, the way Elizabeth uncovers the reality behind her stories is shocking in all the right ways. 

Throughout, Haynes plays on the melodramatic side of things. Gracie in particular is able to make swooning, grand overreactions to the smallest of inconveniences. Essential to this is Marcelo Zarvos’ overwrought score that punctuates key beats with such obvious dramatic ‘moments’ it’s impossible not to be reminded of David Lynch’s seminal Twin Peaks. It has that similar twisted sense of hyper-reality populated with unusual characters harbouring dark secrets. 

There is an intimacy at work here, Haynes’s frame positioning characters uncomfortably close to hint at conflict, attraction and something darker all at once. There are some scenes that take place entirely in mirror reflections and it is in these that May December offers a warped insight into these characters. This is enriched when you see Elizabeth begin to mimic and slowly change her appearance to look like Gracie. It forces you to ask who is reflecting who? How are these characters changing each other? And who is the grandmaster manoeuvring the pieces on this bizarre chessboard. What it does so well is present you with three key characters who you make assumptions about only for it to, inch by slow inch, pull the rug from under you.

Portman’s Elizabeth brings an almost femme fatale like quality to the story. An agent of chaos who cuckoos her way into a family’s lives to plant seeds of doubt and destruction all in the name of “research”. What is so smart is that writer Samy Burch chose to make the role an actor, not a reporter who would be treated with suspicion but a celebrity greeted with excitement. There is something wonderfully Billy Wilder or All About Eve at play.

Julianne Moore is brilliant, flirting from confident to depressive and potentially unstable with almost worrying ease. Charles Melton is heartbreaking as a man with a Peter Pan complex witnessing his children surpass the point at which his life seemingly paused. Meanwhile Natalie Portman is clearly revelling in playing one of her darkest characters. An actress observing with little regard for the impact she has on her subjects and even delighting in directing them to reveal their trauma. 

Because of its closely inspired by actual events May December is a film that manages to pose questions in your mind and then let you decide what the answers are. A film that slowly lures you in before asking you to navigate its dark and murky waters, May December is a smartly made, wonderfully acted and twisted delight of a film.

Dazzler Media presents May December on Blu-ray & DVD from 20th May

Alex Moss Editor

Alex Moss’ obsession with film began the moment he witnessed the Alien burst forth from John Hurt’s stomach. It was perhaps ill-advised to witness this aged 6 but much like the beast within Hurt, he became infected by a parasite called ‘Movies’. Rarely away from his computer or a big screen, as he muses on Cinematic Deities, Alex is “more machine now than man. His mind is twisted and evil”. Email: alex.moss@filmjuice.com

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