There is something about every film he makes that screams David O. Russell. He is a director that—for better or worse—leaves his mark on every moment, every scene. Whether The Fighter, American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook, I (heart) Huckabees or even Three Kings there is no doubt that these are the creations of a singular mind. To be heard above that din means you have done something that is either noteworthy or really, really bad.
In your case it certainly isn’t the latter of that binary.
My first contact with your work was the film Winter’s Bone, which is perhaps one of my personal favorites, for reasons that are far too complex to articulate here. However, a lot of my love for that film was the result of how thoroughly you inhabited the character of Ree, a young women who is required by circumstances to bear burdens no teenager should have to carry. Ree’s quiet strength, her integrity, her ability to overcome her fear were something you managed to convey in a remarkably nuanced way, especially for someone so young.
All of that nuance, and more, was required in your portrayal of Joy in Russell’s film of the same name. He is a director that is drawn to outsized characters—incandescent personalities who push back against the bounds of whatever conventions they see as constraints. In this case Joy is a young mid-Western women, waking from a seventeen-year stasis (allegorically not literally) to find her life is not at all what she had hoped for. The film begins with Russell essentially listing her burdens: a poorly paying job, two young children, an ex-husband living in her basement alongside an eccentric, and really irritating, father—and a mother so paralyzed by fear of the world that she will not leave her room. The least of her burdens is her maternal grandmother, who Russell fitfully engages as a kind of narrative contrivance, but who is the only person, initially at least, who is fully in Joy’s corner.
The rest of the film is a depiction of Joy’s awakening to her own power—her stop-and-start journey towards an existence that goes beyond facilitating the needs of others. While told in Russell’s often unsubtle mode, you still manage to create a rounded character—a woman who begins to create some clarity of purpose in her own existence even as most of those around her try to shove her back into the role they find most comfortable and utilitarian. In short, the history of all family dynamics throughout time.
Your ability to shape a real character—often through a kind of transcendent integrity and an ability to convey a whole range of emotions with a single small gesture—is what prevents Joy from becoming just another paper doll in Russell’s playground. The same cannot be said of most of the rest of the cast. Even Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper are really nothing more than awkwardly placed obstacles to Joy and her ambitions.
This film was profoundly affecting for me because so much of the social landscape Joy had to maneuver through reminded me of watching what my mother had to endure after she and my father divorced. As a young, single mother of three in the early Seventies, my mother managed to penetrate the burgeoning tech industry as a programmer and fought through all the considerable institutional and social obstacles to forge a life for herself and her children. That kind of struggle was front and center throughout this film, and, at least for me, excused any number of the usual sins of excess that inevitably plague a David O. Russel film.
This is a powerful story that you serve enormously well, and it is a pity that your performance is undercut by Russell’s inability to get out of his own way. But you still managed to create, in Joy, a real flesh and blood woman whose struggles should resonate with almost anyone with eyes and any kind of heart.