He’s not even the star of this movie, but I have to say, Christopher Abbott has had a hell of a past 12 months as far as compelling performances go. More specifically, his Sundance game has been on point for the last two years, starting with 2020’s Possessor and Black Bear and continuing this year with his slightly crazed performance in On the Count of Three and his supporting role as the cruel husband to Vanessa Kirby in the romantic 19th century melodrama The World To Come, from Abbott’s Vox Lux director Mona Fastvold.
Set in a fairly inhospitable corner of the American Northeast, the film centers on Abigail (Katherine Waterston), who leads a tough life as wife to Dyer (Casey Affleck), a farmer who often leaves her alone for entire days as he works his land and makes deals in whatever passes for the nearest town. Much of the film is narrated, using Abigail’s frank and honest diary as text that very often reveals her true feelings about her tense interactions with Dyer as they are happening. One day, a new couple moves onto neighboring land, and the wife, Tallie (Kirby, who can now be seen in the Netflix drama Pieces of a Woman), almost immediately comes to visit her lonely neighbor, and the two become fast friends.
Written by Ron Hansen & Jim Shepard (adapting Shepard’s 2017 short story), The World to Come shows us the ways people filled time during periods of seemingly endless isolation. André Chemetoff’s cinematography equally emphasizes both the beauty and vast emptiness of the territory, and this sunny friendship adds a spark of much-needed color into the lives of these people and this bleak but lovely movie. Fast becoming its own sub-genre (with movies like Portrait of a Lady on Fire and the recent Ammonite), any film featuring two corseted women with time on their hands and feeling hemmed in by societal expectations must mean that the women will find comfort and affection in each other.
It becomes clear that Abigail and Tallie are quite different people, with Tallie being a free spirit going way back, while husband Finney (Abbott) attempts to reign her in, first with harsh words and then with methods that are more substantial and appalling. Abigail, on the other hand, believed herself content, if not happy, in her life with Dyer, who has trouble expressing himself but whose attempts to do so are as sweet as they are pathetic. Much like the other films I mentioned, we know going into these “forbidden” relationships that they can never last and that any talk of running away together is pure fantasy. But that knowledge only makes their connection and passion all the more necessary and desperate.
The drudgery of daily life contrasts mightily with the bliss of the affair; all the while, the tension builds because we know something is coming that will pull them apart. A third-act turn in Tallie’s storyline is a bit unexpected, yet seems entirely within character given the religious zealot her husband is slowly becoming over the course of the story. Thanks to both the diary entries and the narrated letters between the women, the movie leans heartily into its literary source material and adds a touch of sophistication not often found in stories of this time and place. Inspiration can be found in watching these women push in both overt and subtle ways against the endless oppression in their lives, though it seems almost destined to fall short of the type of freedom they are hoping for. The World to Come is chilling, thought provoking and heartbreaking.
The film is in theaters beginning February 12 and will be available via VOD starting March 2. Please follow CDC, health department and venue guidelines if attending indoor screenings.
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