Another strong addition to the growing sub-genre of stories about people so desperate for a little danger in their lives that they decide to get romantically and/or creatively involved with Tom Burke despite the fact that he’s a walking red flag six feet tall who would sooner self-destruct than return anyone’s emotional investment (previous entries include “The Souvenir,” “The Crown,” and “Mank”), Harry Wootliff’s “True Things” is a movie that starts with a woman surrendering to fantasy, and then slowly unravels as she tunnels her way towards freedom. It’s the Burke Effect in action: Films project through him without getting stuck. His devil may care darkness stains everything it touches, but it’s tempered with a lightness that helps people find their way to the other side.
So while every part of you might want to shout at a listless Ramsgate government clerk (Ruth Wilson) to run in the opposite direction of the dyed blond ex-con who slurs into her cubicle one gray afternoon like a “Good Time” cos-player gone too far, people familiar with the ghosts of Burkes past might be more willing to watch Kate make a mess of things. We’ve seen how a guy like him can erase the women he promises to make whole, and we’ve seen how those same women can redraw themselves by their own hand in the blank space that he leaves behind.
One of the few things we know about Kate — average bordering on archetypal — is that she needs someone to help shake her out of her self-image. To show her that she’s allowed to color outside the lines. Slouching towards 40 in the same British harbor town where she was born, Kate spends her nights dreaming of some faceless man who might go down on her at the beach, and her days showing up late to a purgatorial office job that requires her to stick to a script. Women like her are probably easy marks for men like Blond (a direct object of a character whose real name is shown but never spoken), but he seems too aloof for a predator, even when he pressures Kate into an impromptu midday tryst. He looks at Kate like she’s a bar snack and not a meal, although his stomach is growling after four months in prison. And when someone who clearly only cares about himself gives you even a taste of their attention, well, folks have thrown it all away for less.
The essence of Wootliff’s close-up, tactile adaptation of Deborah Kay Davies’ novel “True Things About Me” is crystallized in that scene where Blond steals Kate away for that first lunch date. He takes her up to one of the top floors of a garage tower, where Ashley Connor’s camera goes soft and woozy as Blond rubs his hands through Kate’s hair (the “Madeline’s Madeline” cinematographer brings her trademark hyper-sensuality to Kate’s every intense feeling, wild or wilting).
Blond tells Kate to pull down her underwear and she does, only to accidentally bonk her head on the concrete when he pushes her against the wall. Maybe life is just giving her one last chance to laugh at it all, or maybe it’s a bruising reminder that things are never as picture-perfect as they seem in the #RelationshipGoals Instagram pictures that Kate ruefully scrolls through when she’s alone at night. Either way, they consummate the encounter.
Kate’s senile grandma doesn’t recognize her the next time she visits, but in fairness Kate hardly seems to recognize herself. After her next romp with Blond, she hardly seems to recognize him either. “What are you trying to do, climb inside of me?” he growls after Kate dares to press her face against his back in a moment of post-coital bliss. Classic Burke — hot and then cold but always blaming someone else, as if were their hand on the thermostat.
To that end, the rest of “True Things” is a simple matter of degrees. Blond retreats and Kate desperately tries to close the gap as everything else in her life goes fuzzy and Wootliff’s direction follows the plot into “Morvern Callar” territory. This is a story told in gradients of control, and Wilson — so good at playing grounded women who start to feel the Earth moving under their feet — brings a nuance to Kate’s desolation that allows the film to keep thawing across a long middle portion defined by the fact that nothing happens, that the one thing that was happening to her isn’t anymore. Wootliff cuts away everything other than the raw nerves that are left exposed, creating a film more elemental than narrative.
There may not be a lot of meat on the bone here — the plotting is threadbare in a way that can leave the movie feeling like a half-finished sketch of the person its protagonist hopes to become — but every gesture is so charged with enough self-negation or catharsis that you never doubt this story belongs to Kate, even when she’s living in Blond’s thrall. It’s telling that the climactic scene belongs to her alone, abandoned by Blond yet again, the rhythm of the night echoing inside of her that much louder now that she’s an empty vessel. Because that’s the thing about Tom Burke: He’s going to make your life miserable every time, but there’s always the chance that he might be the best thing that ever happened to you anyway.
“True Things” premiered at the 2021 Venice Film Festival and screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.
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