From this unusual starting point, Michel Franco (“Sundown”) weaves a tale of a unique relationship. Sylvia knows how to care for people as a worker at a public home, but she co-exists with her trauma in a way that has led to addiction in the past. She alternates work, AA meetings, and caring for her daughter, but when Saul’s family asks her if she’d care for him too, her carefully structured existence goes askew. Sylvia carries around the wounds of abuse, both by other kids at school and her father. She has stayed close to her sister (Merritt Wever) and her family but is estranged from her mother (Jessica Harper). In a fascinating way, she finds peace and comfort in Saul, someone who can be thoroughly in the moment with her, supportive and fun without caring about all the stuff around Sylvia like everyone else in her life seems to do. It’s a challenging relationship that defies norms in a way that startles Saul’s family (including Josh Charles) but feels true because of what Chastain and Sarsgaard bring to it.
In films like “Chronic” and “Sundown” (which contain two of Tim Roth’s best performances), Michel Franco digs into the lives of characters who make unexpected decisions, relying on his actors to make them believable. Chastain and Sarsgaard rise to the challenge of these complex roles. In particular, Sarsgaard finds truth in a gentle man who is constantly forced to reassess his situation and relationship to the people around him. Like all Franco films, the ending here is a bit of a surprise, but I found it a warmer, more comforting destination than the ones at which he usually arrives.
There’s little comfort to be found in Nikolaj Arcel’s brutal “The Promised Land,” an epic period piece about how the worst impediment to progress doesn’t come from nature but from man. It’s a cliché for critics to say, but they really don’t make movies like this one very often anymore, a film that Arcel introduced by noting its incredibly unique standing on the Danish film scene, not really known for big-budget period action films. He noted how he wanted to make a film like the David Lean ones he loved when he was younger, and he’s mostly succeeded at that, telling a story that’s impressively broad in scope, rich in period detail, and vicious in its deconstruction of how wicked men will hold onto power at any cost. With another rich performance from the always-great Mads Mikkelsen, this is the kind of thing that should work for anyone who misses the period epic drama.