Whenever awards season rolls around, I start playing a little game while watching movies featuring truly great performances: Which scene will yield the clip that is inevitably played before that actor's name is read out at the Oscars?
Based on a novel by Robert Ford, the film tracks the demise of an all-American family unit in early 1960s Montana. When Jerry Brinson (Jake Gyllenhaal) decides to find himself as an ersatz firefighter, volunteering to help stave off the wildfires raging in the mountains, Jeanette (Mulligan), his long-suffering wife, starts questioning her own life decisions. In plain view of her 14-year-old son, she launches into an affair with a local businessman, Warren Miller (Bill Camp), a move that's part vindictive, part desperate attempt at self-preservation.
The exclusive clip below catches Jeanette in a nostalgic mood. She's wearing clothes from her youth as a "shoot beauty," when she used to stand behind the bull shoots at rodeos, confident in her beauty and men's admiration. As Joe sets up the soup cans he's just bought to make dinner, Jeanette prowls around the kitchen, preening and posing for her son's benefit, desperately clinging to whatever sense of self she still has. It's a tragic reminder that not so very long ago, a woman's entire identity was dependent on male desire or her marital status. With Jerry gone, she's no longer a wife, so she must be a mistress. It's only starting to occur to her that she could be something else — something for herself alone.
Mulligan is phenomenal in this movie, but in this scene in particular, she infuses a woman who could flatly be deemed unsympathetic (and in fact was called "reprehensible" by an audience member during a post-screening Q&A) with pathos, emotion, and an aura of nihilistic despair. It's hard not to sympathise with her, even as she's vastly oversharing with her son, who watches, wide-eyed and bewildered.
See for yourself below: