Mare of Easttown (2021) – Review

Mare of Easttown – Unbiased review of the HBO hit featuring Kate Winslet. And deconstruction from the lens of a writer.

I finally saw what everyone seems to be raving about – Mare of Easttown. The hit HBO show has Kate Winslet in the lead role. She is supported by some million other characters, each pivotal for the story. And each actor seems to have delivered their roles as good as Kate has, if not better.

Kate Winslet at Mare. Of Easttown.

And in one line, Mare was a treat to watch!

Let’s get on with the review. And, spoiler alert 🙂

So what is ‘Mare of Easttown’ all about?

If I were to write the logline, it would go like…

Set in a small-town America, a middle-aged cop, troubled by her personal and professional demons is thrown into a murder case that threatens to rip the town apart.

Or…

When a young girl is found dead, the shockwaves rip the life in an American small town. Caught in the middle is this middle-aged cop that has her own inner demons – both personal and professional.

However, the one on IMDB is, “A detective in a small Pennsylvania town investigates a local murder while trying to keep her life from falling apart”.

You guys decide which one is better :D.

Irrespective, here’s the trailer

The official trailer of HBO’s Mare of Easttown

A checklist before the review…

So, before I launch in the review, as a marketer and storyteller, lemme try and deconstruct the logline in a ‘checklist’ of sorts where I list down things that I expect from a pot-boiler. Unless some 80% of things on this list are checked, I know I wouldn’t want to binge on it. I wouldn’t enjoy seeing it and the time I spend there wouldn’t be worth it!

Here…

  1. A small-town in America. That means everyone knows everyone. And that by itself creates exceptional drama. We know this because of all the films and TV pieces we’ve seen about America! You want a setting, a milieu as they call it in the parlance that has potential for great drama. By the virtue of its design. I mean in The Godfather, you know that it’s going to be a story of Mafia and will have strong familiar tones. You thus already know what kind of film it would be. Mare’s story is set in an American small town and it probably would have a hyperlink story with complex relationships between various characters. In the case of Mare? Check!
  2. A detective trying to keep her life together. We can thus expect plenty of drama in terms of relationships with her family and close friends. There would be all emotions at display – love, affection, jealously, misunderstanding, insinuations, and more. Check!
  3. A murder of a local girl. You already know that someone from the town is involved. You can already guess that the murderer would probably be related to the lead protagonist. You know that the investigation would wedge another split in her already broken life. Wow! Immense scope for drama. Check!
  4. Without reading more from the logline, you know that such a story would have a string of murders (and not just one). Ooooh, exciting. Check.
  5. You can further predict that there would be a few Red Herrings thrown in there for you to you chew on and get blind-sighted by. Not sure of this before you see it!
  6. As an intelligent audience member, you know that there would be turns and twists and the plot would be a rollercoaster in terms of ups and downs. You would be on the same ride with the protagonist. That’s what an epic piece of cinema does to you! Again, I can’t be sure unless I see the first episode or something.

So I have 4 checks out of 6. Not bad!

Now. Coming to the 7-episode, limited-edition series on HBO (and available on Hotstar in India).

Kate Winslet plays Mare Sheehan, an early 50ish (or may be in her late 40s) woman with a complicated life — Has a love-hate relationship with the place where she’s literally spent all her life; Personal life is in shambles – grandmother already, divorced (and the ex-husband living next door and getting married again soon), constantly bickering with her mother; Professionally, is righteous, mostly good and yet has a year-old kidnapping case that she’s been unable to solve.

From the opening scene of the first episode, you are sucked deep into her world. It’s very well. You have a tough time understanding the complex shades that each character seems to have. You are left wondering, even flustered. But it’s intriguing enough for you to invest your time and brains in decoding all that’s on the screen.

You know that Mare is a no-nonsense, short-fused cop. You see shades of flaw in her characters. You see her world through her lens and through the fourth wall. The husband moving in next door, with clearly a better woman alongside. The lifetime she’s spent in the town. The corner she seems to have painted herself and how she’s pushed her own family on the brink. The conflict in her life and the story is revealed – the case that she can’t seem to solve. The town, her friends, and more importantly, she herself seem to carry the burden of the unsolved case.

Mare’s family. But Mare.

And when the cliffhanger for the first episode comes in, you are in for a treat.

The second episode opens with somber music. Probably the only piece of music that I thought was noteworthy. Mare knows the girl who’s died.

Lemme digress for a bit here. Pre COVID, I used death and dying loosely. The first book I wrote? It was bloodier than the whole of The Game of Thrones and had more corpses than the number of words in it. However, after COVID, I have changed a bit. Death has more meaning for me than life has ever had. It sucks that when you die, you are reduced to figments of imagination and the pile of clothes that once carried you and was part of your identity.

I loved the scene where Mare is forced to announce the death to the father of the girl. More than Mare, the actor that has played the father of the deceased has done a fabulous job! I literally welled up. This scene I thought was one of the best pieces of writing in the whole of Mare. Imagine you are woken up by a knock on the door. You are hungover and there’s the town cop and your cousins on the door. What would you imagine happened?

And of course, you expect the father to do what he would does in the cliffhanger for the second episode! And no, just because it is predictable, it does not mean that it’s not done well!

By the time you start with the third episode, you start seeing the “real” characters. Mare is transformed into an aged woman and she looks worn out. You see her mother taking her revenge on poor fruits on Fruit Ninja. Mare’s daughter is confused. The side cop asks Mare if there’s “anybody you are not related to”. Everyone in the town is torn and starts to look like a suspect!

This is exactly how hyperlink cinema should be.

Till this point, I was in awe of the writing. However, my enthusiasm dampened when they used the typically lazy device of an anonymous tip to move the story forward.

But then they redeemed when they made Mare do something unpredictable, something uncharacteristic. Something that will have dire consequences for Mare. Something that she could have avoided if only she did not take that action. It exposes the flaws in Mare as a human and by this time, I am in love with her!

The fourth episode opens with Mare’s mother asking if she was going to work late when Mare (and all of us viewers) know that she wasn’t going to! Then, she and her best friend Lor are sitting on a park bench. The bench, if you spotted it, is dedicated to Mare’s father. They even paused the camera there for a split second. Such tiny details are what appeal to the subconscious!

Mare and Lor on a park bench.

When Mare leans on Lor in the same scene, the dark writer in me is thinking, either Lor’s going to die a gruesome death or they would split soon thereafter. This fleeting thought moves on as you start seeing Mare as a reflection of yourself – someone harsh on self for no reason!

At this point, to be honest, I started losing interest. There are way too many Red Herrings and I found myself checking my phone a lot. I even played a few games of Chess while I waited for the story to move ahead.

PS: A little spoiler here. In case you are like and want to quit, please carry on. If you do, you will be rewarded handsomely in the end. There’s a brilliant ending that I can bet my ass on that you can’t guess what’s in store for you! At least for all the intelligence that I think I am blessed with, I couldn’t figure it out.

A large part of the fifth episode is Mare trying to cope with her past. While you see a lot of her family’s history and you tend to understand what has shaped her. You want to empathize with her but there’s way too many narrations and you feel like you are listening to an old woman rant on and on about the mistakes she’s made in her life.

I wished the writers could help the action rise in this episode but it was anything but that. The story skirts sideways for forever, into the personal lives of people that you are no longer interested in. You want to move on with it. There are more urgent matters at hand. You know, murders are happening that need solving!

Just when I decide that I’ve had enough of this and I was about to turn it off, the story takes a turn. You know how the plane crawls on the runway before it starts to run and then lift off? That. I felt that jolt towards the end of this episode. It came out of nowhere and suddenly, the story was as invigorated as it was in the first two episodes!

From the sixth episode onward, I was so involved with the story and the action and the screen in front of me that I stopped taking notes. My hyperactive mind is making scenarios where Mare’s daughter will probably get hurt. I even postulated in my head that Mare’s love interest would be revealed as the perp. Of course, I was wrong!

The case starts to crack open. While Mare remains unaware of who and why the audience is told about the secret. As a viewer, my interest is now to see Mare find her way and reach the conclusion. The curiosity is more on how than who. This shift in perspective from where both the audience and the protagonist in dark to where just the protagonist is now struggling is done really well. The transition is done so well that you don’t even realize that you have crossed the chasm and Mare is now all alone!

Of course, while you are sort of comforted by the knowledge of the crime, you continue to see Mare continue to struggle and make progress. She’s chipping away at a large boulder, trying to carve a picture out of it. One strike at a time. Like in most good cop stories, there is a lot of hard work, a lot of hustle, and of course, some luck.

As you start the seventh episode, you see Mare make connections. She seems to get closure on the case at hand. And of course, on the case that has been bugging her forever. More than just Mare, all other characters that are affected by the incidents tend to get closure.

Lemme talk about this for a bit. There is so much closure in the story that it’s unreal. I mean as a filmmaker, it’s your job to deliver closure to the characters and to the audience but this much closure? I wish they had left a few open ends, a few open windows. It would probably have made me take a little more note and invest a little more of myself into the story.

So that!

Oh, by the end of it, Mare makes a discovery that will leave you shocked, even gasping for breath for a bit. You would feel that you have redeemed the 7 hours you’ve invested in it. I wish I could write about it but I will have to let this hang in the air for you to discover and enjoy the journey with Mare! And if I may, please do go for it. You will enjoy it!

? ? What works well?

This list runs into pages! Let me try and write about the top 4 things.

1. Very very well-developed characters.
Even the minor ones seem to have well-defined backstories and arcs. Most importantly, each character has a reason. There is not one character that is not needed to complete the narrative. Further, the presence of each character feels just right. You know, it’s like knowing a community intimately!

2. Acting.
I could not spot one actor that has not performed well. Each actor felt natural. Each conversation felt real. To a point that at one time I forgot that I was watching a TV drama. It looked so real as if someone had planted cameras into a real small town somewhere deep in America!

3. A, B, C, … Y, Z stories.
In any story that runs into such a length, you better have multiple threads and stories running in parallel. While Mare is Mare Sheehan’s story, each character has a story or two. Even in Mare’s story, there’s a B story and a C story and more! There is no way you would not get invested in it!

4. Detail.
There are so many tiny things that add texture to the character and the story. In the second episode, Mare is getting ready for a date and she can’t find a lipstick that she likes! I mean this one tiny detail tells you so much about Mare that a whole book can! Then, throughout the series, the phone Mare uses has a smashed screen. I mean it’s such an insignificant detail and yet tells you so much!

? ? What could have been better?

There are very few things that I can point that damned red flag at. I think two things could’ve been better…

1. Music. Definitely.
In my opinion, a great whodunnit is made legendary by the music it has. You know, how the jitters you get when you see a shocking scene are amplified by the music? I found that missing with Mare.

2. Tighter editing.
The episodes in the messy middle felt dragged. Like I said, I found myself checking my phone a lot during the middle episodes. It’s like anything else. The beginning is euphoric. The end is ecstatic. The middle is, well, exhausting.

Mind you, I am not talking about the writing per se. It would make for a brilliant read. But on screen, the parts in the middle look bloated!

So that!

In the end…

Finally, when I evaluate stories and content, I ask myself two questions.

A, does it shift something in you as a human being?
And B, are you haunted by it after years?

I mean I saw Nomadland recently (read my review here) and something shifted in me. Breaking Bad continues to haunt me. While I may not remember a lot, I can’t get over the characters like Walter White, Heisenberg, Saul, and more. I continue to have a soft spot for Walter and I am willing to excuse his actions. Images from Parasite are still fresh in my head. Closer home, a Joji has stayed with me. The nuances it had captured are deep and intricate. From The Godfather, even though it’s been decades, I still get the chills when I think about the wrath of the Corleones. As I write, I am thinking about what would Don Vito be like when he was still not Don.

In case of Mare, I find both these missing.

And this is why I would stop at a 3.5 on 5 for Mare.
And not go up to a 4 or more.

I just hope Kate Winslet fans wouldn’t come after me for this apparent sacrilege.

With that, its the end of this post. Do let me know what you think of Mare of Easttown and if you were to review it, how would you.

Over and out!


Edits / notes / observations / comments…

Ankit is of the opinion that this piece has come out way too indulgent. I dont know what to say. Too many “I”s 😀

Akanksha points out few things. Two of those that I am taking note of are…
A, this is way too long. I agree.
And B, is while the crime is the subtext, the story is more about relationships – Mare’s personal life, her relationship with others around her, of other people and their interactions, and more. I agree. I missed this thread completely. To a point that I missed seeing Mare from the angle of it being a relationship-first story (and not a crime story).

More as and when friends start commenting.

Nomadland (2021) – Movie Review

Review of Nomadland (2021) by Chloé Zhao, starring Frances McDormand, Bob Wells, and others.

Lemme start this piece with a question.

When was the last time you saw a film that made you rethink the way you live your life? Or made you yearn for something so much that you were willing to drop everything you stood for all your life and start over? Or made you ponder the meaning of it all?

Take your time.

For me, I had to go all the way back to the SRK starrer Swades.

No, I don’t mean there haven’t been good movies lately. In fact, a lot of films over the recent years have been so so good that you wonder where were these filmmakers all this while. I think with the advent of OTT and D2C, the business has moved into a territory where experimental, edgier, deeper films are possible. Stories like Whiplash, Three Billboards, and more would never come to life in an era when theatres dictated the fortune of films.

Closer home, films like The Disciple (yet to see), and even Gully Boy (even though I am not a big fan of it) would never happen if we continued to look for formulaic cinema that has come to rule the box offices, production houses, and audiences. In fact, I must mention films like Irul and Joji (I recently saw these). If not for OTTs, I would not even have these in the consideration set. These were among the first few non-Hindi, non-English films I saw and I was mightily impressed with them. More on these later, before I digress too far ahead.

Coming to the film that I want to talk about today.

Nomadland.
Spoilers ahead. In case you havent seen, please read with caution.

On Location: Chloé Zhao's 'Nomadland' Is a Love Letter to America's Wide  Open Spaces | Condé Nast Traveler
Screengrab from Nomadland.

Nomadland, the film has a fairly simple story. The kinds you would dismiss if you heard it as a pitch. Fern, a widow (played by Frances McDormand) decides to skip the town (strangely called Empire) where she’s literally lived all her life. In two unrelated incidents, her husband has died and the town gets shut (and she loses her job). Instead of going to live with her sister or other relatives, she chooses van dwelling and hits the road. Along the way, she picks temporary, seasonal jobs to make ends meet. And meets others like her. The ones who have decided to remain on the move for perpetuity. Somewhere along the road she discovers herself and finds the closure that she’s seeking.

That’s it. That’s the story!

Even as a writer, I cant seem to spot the arc in the story (or the character), the three acts, the inciting incident, the conflicts, and so on and so forth. And yet the story, the narrative, the film is gripping.

Irrespective. It’s been a few days since I saw the film and it has made me rethink the choices I’ve made in my life. It made me yearn for the interplay of predictability and adventures that open roads that tend to have. After all, they have a destination per se and yet could potentially lead to nowhere. It made me question my raison d’etre. I was so moved, so inspired to let go of whatever little I have at the place I call home. And I will not lie, I have started to make an inventory and sort whatever little I have in two piles – one to be sent to storage (my parent’s home in Delhi) and the other that I will carry along.

Oh, I must also mention that often the time and the stage in life at which you see a film tends to amplify the impact it has on you. It’s poignant and uncanny and insane that I saw Nomadland at a time when I am surrounded by so many people who are forced to say untimely goodbyes. To me, it’s thus become a film about coping with grief, coming to terms with our impermanence, thinking about mortality, letting go, and on top of it all, continuing to move on.

I loved how the film starts with Fern gingerly packing all her belongings in long-term storage and heading out. And I loved how the film ends with Fern discarding all that she had (apparently) carefully stored (cos we enter that scene late). It’s so poetic that I can’t seem to get over it. The inventory I talked about above is inspired by exactly this!

So the film.

The film follows Fern’s journey as she moves around the country, taking odd jobs to pay her bills, trying to overcome obstacles that a nomadic life throws at her, and her search for herself, through the lens of others, the relationships she develops, and the community of other van-dwellers. She even calls herself “houseless” and not homeless. She’s accepted the van as her home. Along the way she makes friends with strangers and finds solace in this Sage figure of Bob Wells that’s like a savant and messiah for van dwellers and others of the ilk. There’s even a hint of a love interest with another van dweller, Dave.

Film Commentary: "Nomadland" and Freedom's Call - A Realistic Look at a  Growing Subculture - The Arts Fuse
Fern and Dave

At each juncture, with each person Fern encounters, the film throws at me a reason for choosing the road over what Dave calls spending “another night under a roof”. Bob is probably coming to terms with the loss of his son and what he does is his way to make amends with his inability to undo things and bring his son back. Swankie is terminal and doesn’t want to die in a hospital. There’s an even more stable, more relatable, more normal family of Fern’s sister that is picturesque and poster-child of American success. From their lens, you see that they crave the freedom that Fern has. And on this side is the contrasting reality of Fern where she’s forced to visit her sister to borrow some 2000 dollars to fix her van! Uff!

I loved how each character had a well-developed backstory that they literally narrate. The film reversed the old age “tip” of showing and not telling. I mean there’s a lot of telling, a lot of symbolism and yet it just feels right!

To me, the biggest takeaway from the film is NOT that there are people that choose a nomadic lifestyle. The takeaway is that all of us are so communal that we need shelter in a community of others, like-minded individuals who believe in the same ideology as you. This shared ideology is what often helps you tide over your battles – personal or otherwise; large or small.

In fact, all my life, I’ve wanted to build a community of people like me. People that are innately curious, people who want to live a life full of adventure, excitement, non-stop dopamine hits, and exploration. People that want to do more, help others do more, and along the way live a great life. People that push us, humans, ahead. I think this bit about community and the need to belonging is probably the most fundamental of all our needs. Something that we are willing to kill for. You know the world today is a testimony of how our attachment to our communities and ideologies has brought us to a brink!

In Nomadland, the community that Fern eventually finds is of people that seek freedom and yet of escape. It is this community, through the interplay of emotions and life and death and love and separation and more, that makes Fern reconcile with her loss and eventually helps her accept the life that she’s chosen for herself.

In terms of the visuals, the cinematography, the film seemed to have filled in the vast, empty, remote American landscapes with dense emotions and turmoil that each character seems to be going through. As an aspiring filmmaker, this is something that I need to note and work on when I make my film.

There is this scene in the film where Fern is holding a lantern and is walking across the trailer park. It is probably among the best pieces of camerawork and imagination. It’s such a great metaphor for you trying to find yourself amidst all the others around you. There is another where Fern is floating naked in a rivulet. Oh man, the bliss that she’s in! Then those tight shots of her in her van where she’s so intimate with the congested space that you almost feel guilty about deriving voyeuristic pleasures from seeing her interact with things in her “natural habitat”.

There’s so much to love about the film.

I love the writing. Even though there are few words, few dialogues in the film, each word spoken by each character is like a pearl. Each line is crafted with so much care that it shows. Each sentence is worth hanging onto.

I loved the juxtaposition of struggle fight against large businesses like Amazon and then, on the other side, reliance on such businesses to pay your bills. The neverending fence that divides capitalists and free-right advocates.

I loved how the film spoke to me at a personal level – I don’t want to be in a hospital when my time comes. I like the idea of freedom. I want need a community where I am understood.

The most pivotal part of the film for me is right at the end when Fern and Bob talk about Bob’s life. I was stunned when he explains the rationale of “down the road”.

My jaws literally touched the floor when I heard that.

At that point, the meaning of the film, the unknown that Fern and others were chasing, the known that Bob is after, and the reason why I do what I do, as Saurabh, became crystal clear. Like someone opened the all-knowing, all-seeing, third eye! Once you see the film, hope it’s evident to you as well.

So that’s about from me about Nomadland.

I have to say that great films not just tell you a story, but also change something in you. You shift as an individual. You empathize with the protagonists so much that you want to make changes to your life. Nomadland is one such film. Please do watch it and be ready to shift. It deserves all the accolades it’s got. Probably more. And it deserves your attention.

Over and out.

See you, down the road.

PS: I was on the fence about buying a car. Now, after I’ve seen the film, thought about it, written this piece, I think I will make an attempt to get one. Let’s see when.

Review – Durgamati (2020)

A short review of an upcoming Amazon Prime film, Durgamati. The film starring Bhoomi Pednekar in the lead role is set to release on the 11th of Dec.

I normally don’t do pop-culture-y time-bound things but over at TheRedSparrow.in (one of the things I helped start), they were talking about the upcoming film Durgamati and thus I got curious and I went ahead to write it. This is a new thing. Lemme know what you think.

Every big-budget film demands the writer to pen a plotline that is so convoluted that you need a Sherlock to unravel it. And yet you want it to be so mass-y that even a 6-year-old relates to it. After all, big monies come to the producers when the film does well in the multiplexes and the single-screen cinemas. I suspect that is what the writer-director Ashok was attempting with Durgamati as he remakes his super hit Telugu movie, Bhaagamathie (2018) in Hindi. 

The story of Durgamati

The story is of two political rivals that are at loggerheads over pretty much everything. The one in power wants to pin the blame on the one competing against him (Ishwar Prasad, played by Arshad Warsi). Since he has the judicial and political machinery working for him, it is easy. So Rawat (played by Jishnu Sengupta) and Mahie Gill (her character’s name is not clear in the trailer) plot against Prasad. They try to manipulate Chanchal Chauhan (played by Bhoomi Pednekar), an old accomplice of Prasad, into conspiring against him. Chanchan is in prison because she was caught murdering a man in broad daylight.  

They put her in the holding at the Durgamati Haveli, which is apparently haunted. Mahie Gill coerces Chanchan by offering her freedom if she agrees to rat against Ishwar. Chanchan of course refuses. 

And thus starts the story of Durgamati. And the Haveli. And the film. 

What works for me? What does not?

What stands out for me, even though I first saw the trailer on the tiny screen of an iPhone X is the lavish, grand sets and impeccable CG. The cinematography by Kuldeep Mamania is brilliant. Mamania was a camera person in the critical and commercial hit Tumbaad (2018) as well. Even though the standards of visuals (a marriage of art direction, costumes, camera, and of course direction) in India have been raised to the Hollywood-ish levels in recent years, this one is still among the best I’ve seen. The shots look grand, crisp, and make me want to actually navigate the Durgamati Haveli in real life! 

I have to give a special mention to the art direction. The details are, well, detailed! I mean look at this shot. What do you think those windows at the back look like to you? 

Screengrab from the trailer of Durgamati.

As a big fan of Mahie Gill’s work in Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster (2011), Dev D (2009), and Gulaal (2009), I expected a lot more from her. She looks unconvincing as a cop. I do hope that in the film she is more powerful. 

Arshad Warsi, again, to me looks unconvincing as a politician. I half expect him to break into a joke with every line he delivers.

Bhoomi Pednekar as the lead has done a decent job with the acting. When I see getting dragged for the interrogation, I see her plight. When she becomes the all-powerful Durgamati, I feel her power. However, the couple of dialogues that she has in the trailer, they lack any punch.

Also, for some reason, while I was watching it, I could not stop drawing comparisons with Vidya Balan in Priyadarshan’s Bhool Bhulaiyaa (2017), which itself was a remake of a Malayalam film. The mood, the costumes, the music, the frames reminded me of the film that was released 13 years ago. But then maybe it’s just me – an old, self-confessed discerning cinephile. 

I am told that the Telugu film was a phenomenon! However, I have not seen the Telugu film and thus can’t really draw parallels. What I do know is that as a standalone piece of work, I may not be too keen to watch Durgamati in the cinemas even though it promises to be a cinematic treat.

But hey, there are no cinemas and with it streaming on Amazon Prime, I might as well! 

What do you think of the trailer? 

PS: Like with all reviews that I post, I wish to draw your attention to this speech by Anton Ego.


This is part of 30 minutes of writing everyday challenge. Others in the series are at 3010, 3110, 0111, 0211, 0311, 0411, 0511, 0611, 0911, 1011, 1211, 1311, 1411, 1511, 1611, 1711, 1811, 1911, 2011, 2311, 2611.