“Doing something great is overrated,” a cynical and embittered Mare Sheehan says at a crucial moment in HBO’s “Mare Of Easttown,” an outstanding and deeply human drama and crime procedural. “Because people expect that from you…all the time.” Played to resentful, unapologetically cantankerous perfection by Kate Winslet, Mare, a small-town Pennsylvania police detective, is making the apt summation of her crummy life—the expectations that have haunted her and the burden of an early glory that has long faded but still defines her.
Mare is also affectionately known to the townsfolk as Miss Lady Hawk, an unwelcome nickname she earned from scoring the “impossible” winning shot in a high school basketball game some 25-odd years ago. It means nothing to her now, and perhaps never did, but the moment still means everything to the legacy of Easttown—a town with little to celebrate—and it’s been an albatross ever since. So, it’s the anniversary and relitigating of this famous game where “Mare Of Easttown” wisely begins, reminding Mare, all over again, that it’s all been downhill since.
Created and penned by screenwriter Brad Ingelsby, who knows a little something about past glories tethered to sports and identity (“The Way Back”), and the circle-draining, dead-ended purgatory of small-town insularity (“Out Of The Furnace”), “Mare Of Easttown” successfully applies many of these same winning ideas to a murder that speaks to the dark side of close-knit communities, and the personal hardships of a struggling woman, who has to decide if her past tragedies and adversities are going to define her future.
In “Mare Of Easttown,” life is depressed, literally and figuratively. Mare Sheehan’s life peaked and then crumbled a long time ago. But the hits keep coming. Her ex-husband, Frank (David Denman), is getting remarried, and in a cruel irony, has found a new home behind her house (the small-town claustrophobia is no joke). Mare, bitter and perennially grumpy, lives with her unfailingly sarcastic mom (a terrific Jean Smart) and her jaded teenage daughter Siobhan (Angourie Rice), who knows her mom is a real piece of difficult work.
Mare is a disaster of a person, and so is her personal life, so she distracts herself by pouring into her work as a detective. But things on the job are beginning to chafe because an exasperated mother, already suffering from cancer, has started to rally the community around the case of her missing teenage daughter. It’s been a year since her daughter vanished, and the intensity of community outrage—and the fact that Mare, the lead detective, has found no leads—is reaching its peak. Worse, the agitation of Easttown only intensifies when an isolated teen mom, suddenly turns up dead. This forces the local Police Chief (John Douglas Thompson) to bring in a ringer up from the county— Detective Colin Zabel (Evan Peters, one of his best recent roles), a young, supposed hot-shot investigator, to put a set of fresh eyes on the case, but he’s perhaps less skilled than everyone believes. The icy Mare, of course, is unimpressed, indignant, and gives her new partner a hard time at every turn.
This new murder ratchets up the tension and lights up the murder mystery element of the show, but “Mare Of Easttown” does an incredible job of balancing the gripping intrigue of a crime drama with the very authentic, human, and personal struggles of its characters. It’s the perfect mix of genre and drama and an exemplary encapsulation of why the prestige limited series—like an extended movie that allows time for character development—might be the best format for adult storytelling we have right now.
At first, “Mare of Easttown” initially resembles HBO’s “I Know This Much Is True,” which just won Mark Ruffalo a well-deserved SAG award, in a similar story of bruising emotional anguish and pain. It’s dark, it’s depressing, and it aches with a similar sadness that often comes with the notion of never escaping the limits and of small-town borders. But what quickly separates ‘Mare’ from that show’s miserablist tendencies is its great sense of dark and sanguine humor. Some situations are so bleak that all you can do to make sense of it all is have a hearty bellyaching laugh, and it’s this mix of tone that’s very welcome and never inconsistent.
Directed by Craig Zobel in its seven-episode entirety (HBO’s “The Leftovers”), it’s the filmmaker’s best work by far, nuanced, moody, well-shot, and a nice redemption; given the unenthusiastic reviews of his last film, “The Hunt.” The cast of “Mare Of Easttown,” which also includes Cailee Spaeny, a local teenager, Julianne Nicholson as Mare’s best friend, and Guy Pearce, a local creative writing professor and potential paramour for Mare, is exceptional too, a fantastic ensemble that is firing on all cylinders.
But it’s Winslet and the writing that are the joint MVPs, which is a bonus when you have an awards-worthy ensemble cast and filmmaker working in concert. Winslet is unashamedly grumpy, frumpy, and unafraid to show her unpleasant side (sorry, but this is far superior to the similarly irritable performance in the far-less successful “Ammonite”). Amazingly, the show and Winslet seemingly do very little to engender audience sympathy or balance out her bad-tempered tendencies. Still, the character and performance are so human, so authentic in their fully formed depiction of a beaten and weathered life that has taken it on the chin so many times; it’s impossible not to empathize with her regardless. Winslet is phenomenal at carrying the spirit and theme of the show on her shoulders too.
There are darker elements to Mare’s backstory too, but Ingelsby’s series wisely doesn’t craft the initially undisclosed trauma like a big secret that needs to be deciphered. Rather, it organically comes to light, and it’s convincingly cast as a past tragedy that explains a lot about her estranged, defeated personality but isn’t something she wants to spend a lot of time discussing. However, talking it out and healing might be her eventual road to redemption, if she can get out of her own way, that is.
Ultimately, “Mare Of Easttown” is more akin to something like “True Detective” meets the Ingelsby-penned “The Way Back” starring Ben Affleck, and its ideas of the soulful, hard-won, life-affirming minor comeback that need not arrive in a hail of fireworks, but something quieter and modest. There’s a deep inherent sadness to the idea of faded glory. Those scars aren’t going away, but in its hopeful inkling, never too overstated, this poignant and human drama—compelling as all get out with its murder mystery too—suggests for all the L’s we take in life, we can still choose to live as if the past is the past and small, but meaningful victories are always within reach. [A]
“Mare of Easttown” debuts on HBO on April 18.