Todd Haynes tackles epic banality with his adaptation of James M. Cain's "Mildred Pierce," a strange piece of work that blurs the line between feminist hoorah and misogynist drivel. The novel was something of a departure for Cain, bearing little resemblance to his noir works and instead choosing to explore a life in transition while trying to wrestle down the idea that our children might not be everything we want them to be. He also confronted the resultant disappointments that erupt, both personal and familial. Haynes deviates little from this path, stretching his story across nine agonizing years and a parade of defeats in public and private.
The film opens in the midst of the Great Depression and the tail-end of prohibition, a time when pent-up aggressions and frustrations in most Americans were about to boil over. Mildred Pierce (Kate Winslet) is an average housewife of the time, stuck in a marriage with a husband she knows is two-timing her and two astringent daughters, the hyperactive Ray and the ethereal and aristocratic Veda. Within five minutes of the film, Mildred kicks her husband out and embarks on her bizarre personal odyssey of self-discovery as she struggles to find footing and provide for her daughters in a world that still viewed women as second class citizens.
It's easy to lose sight of how difficult is to tackle the story of one life in film and have it come across as both universal and individualized, and Haynes does a fine job letting us tag along as Mildred opens herself up to the possibility of self-actualization. We watch as Mildred takes her first job as a waitress and finds her self esteem crushed by the job's low stature. We see her stumble into an awkward sexual affair with her husband's former business partner, who then stakes Mildred in her own business venture, a restaurant dealing specifically in chicken, waffles, and pies. Just as the restaurant takes off and begins to lend the Pierces some financial stability, Ray dies of a mysterious fever, leaving Mildred and Veda alone in their mausoleum-like home together, hastening the deterioration of their relationship. Mildred takes up romantically with the aimless but handsome playboy Monty Beragon (Guy Pearce) whose fruit fortune is rapidly disappearing thanks to conglomerations and consolidations, relying on Mildred to sustain his high-end lifestyle. Monty and Veda bond quickly over their arrogance, and this is the fulcrum on which all the relationships implode.
Mildred's self-delusion is mind-blowing. Haynes and Cain seem to suggest that the dual roles of involved single-parent and successful businesswoman are absolutely at odds with one another and juggling them is bound to result in failure. Mildred could be read as either a proto-feminist icon (a self-made woman in an extremely difficult social era, both financially and sexually independent) or as a pathetic casualty of rampant masculine domination (she relies on men for the majority of her guidance, often following their advice blindly); Haynes doesn't make a judgment either way, instead leaving it up to us to decide where our sympathies will ultimately lie. While some of Mildred's choices are baffling, she isn't a bad person-merely a simple one who gets caught up in a world of massively inflated personalities that she can't possibly equal intellectually or aristocratically. The gross illustration of these two worlds and their total incompatability is at the heart of the film's theme, showing us what happens when we try to be something we can't possibly be. In this the film's tagline seems horribly apt: having it all costs everything, indeed.
Mildred's relationship with her daughter Veda (Evan Rachel Wood) is at the center of everything, the eye of the Pierce storm. All of Mildred's decisions revolve around Veda, and all of her heartbreaks and failures are the result of her falling short of Veda's inflated expectations. When we're first introduced to Veda she's seems from another world: impossibly noble, disdainfully proud and possessed of an arrogance that renders her immediately unlikeable. Veda has no regard for anyone, and as she ages she grows more and more into the person she always imagined herself to be: one of the Hollywood elite. Her shame regarding her background, and Mildred in particular, causes her to fall into her own delusions, blissfully unaware of what it actually takes to support the glamorous sort of lifestyle she sees being lived out by Monty and his high society pals. Both use Mildred over and over, sucking off of her relatively minor financial success like royal vampires, eating away at her until Mildred is reduced to little else than a vehicle for their wishes. Mildred so lives for Veda that she forgets everything else in her life, and Veda's subsequent removal from, and reappearance into, Mildred's life causes a wealth of personal inner destruction that she cannot bear without consequence.
Haynes allows Mildred some respite in the form of her ex-husband Bert (Brian F. O'Byrne) and her friend Lucy Gessler (Melissa Leo). Both provide Mildred with support and advice that comes from a position of true love and concern rather than greed and narcissism, and without their prominence in Mildred's life (especially Bert, who seems to be the best ex-husband a girl could possibly have) the story would have turned out much more tragically than it already does. Mildred's insistence that there's something good in Veda remains right up until the end, whereas virtually everyone else sees that she's nothing more than a cloud of air and ambition dressed up in silk and lace. Even Veda's music teacher tells Mildred she's a bitch and not worth the exhaustion it takes to have her in her life. But Mildred will not accept that her daughter is so empty, so vile, so callous, and this delusional parental desire to see something good in her child, no matter how contrary that child's behaviour, illustrates the simplicities and vulnerabilities that allow Mildred to be so used and taken advantage of. When Bert finally tells Mildred "To hell with her" in regards to Veda, we hope with all our hearts that Mildred actually listens.
Haynes has captured a frustrating character trying to eke out an existence in an extraordinarily transformative time, and his film vividly recreates the era. Every setpiece is bathed in a washed-out sickly sort of green, giving the look of some sort of fevered and bizarre dream. Carter Burwell's score is excellent, reminding me of his evocative and dark work for the Coen Brothers' "A Serious Man." The acting is uniformly excellent, with Evan Rachel Wood and Guy Pearce both living their characters and the time (Pearce especially seems geared for this, trumping his work in the similarly set "L.A. Confidential") while Kate Winslet turns in a one-note performance that seems intricately layered, completely perfect for Mildred's seeming inability to belong in any aspect of her world.
"Mildred Pierce" isn't as deep as it wants to be, but it's far from terrible. I get the feeling it's a little difficult for Haynes to remove from himself from the elitist sect he's trying to vilify here, but the emptiness captured in both Veda and Monty is more than indicative enough of some kind of evil running throughout society. The film should serve as a warning to all of us, that our dreams always run the risk of being trampled beneath the demands of our lives, that self-realization almost always requires total removal from the shackles of our day to day existences. We can't possibly find out who we are if we're always forced into playing the role of what everyone else thinks we should be.