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Monaghan gives a great performance in an otherwise solid film.
Having sat on the sidelines of various action movies and thrillers, including but not limited to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Source Code, Mission Impossible: III and this year's True Detective, it's great to see Michelle Monaghan lead a good meaty drama. It's a premise also explored this year with Clint Eastwood's American Sniper but arguably one more interesting through a mother's eyes.
Returning home from duty, medic Maggie Swann (Monaghan) finds herself replaced in her son's eyes by her (Ron Livingston in a good small role) ex-husband's new wife (Emmanuelle Chriqui). As a result of her frequent absences, he doesn't even recognize her. Taking custody back from her ex, she tries to reinstate herself as her son's mother, starting their relationship with a fresh slate. Fort Bliss captures the anxiety of the fact that we can get to a point where we can no longer catch up, no matter how close we should be.
Maggie thrives in service more than motherhood. She's not a bad mother by all means, but sometimes she simply lacks the patience. Monaghan plays it stern but sensitive, holding her cards close to her chest only revealing aspects of herself when necessary. It's a very controlled and layered performance that shows what she can do when given the leading opportunity.
I just wish the kid actor, Oakes Fegley, wasn't so unbearable. Sure, the kid is a brat, that's the point, but it's near intolerable. His performance is not well measured, or guided by writer/director Claudia Myers into a passable unrestrained performance like Noah Wiseman in this years The Babadook. The film hinges on the kid and as he lacks charisma the goal of bonding with him is not an enticing one.
The plot glides perhaps a little too smoothly, though it is very character orientated. For instance, Maggie suggests whether her son wants a bigger room to run around in and the next minute they've moved house. The writing often lacks a sensitivity to consequence when the tone of the performances and photography suggest otherwise. It could have benefited from a lot more focus as assorted characters and flashbacks drift in and out of Maggie's life without enough development to justify their prominence.
Although it needed various trimmings, the power of its main ideas remains stark. Besides the idea of losing touch with those you should be closest to, it subverts the mother and father role in this context, questioning why when men have to work it's fine yet when women have to it means they're a bad mother. It puts you in a very interesting, if justifiably confrontational perspective. The film isn't all agenda driven arguments with a few tense Hurt Locker style passages to reveal more about the why of Maggie.
Combined with the great performances, it has an appropriately desert bleached and subdued shaky-cam cinematography mixed with a Gustavo Santaolalla-esque score to give it a rugged aesthetic.Fort Bliss is an often intimate and involving film, but it doesn't offer enough to be completely satisfying unless you relate to it in a very specific way. But this is the Monaghan show and it's is essential viewing for any fans of her work so far. If only she could get some kind of awards traction, it would be thoroughly deserved.
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