Todd Haynes is one of the greatest living American directors that we have today. His work is consistent to a degree where if he has a new project in the works, you can expect that it will be, at the minimum, really good. His work isn’t outrageously popular, or “iconic” or anything like that. Instead, he makes deeply personal films, all of which seem to have similar themes (Americana, homosexuality, genuine love, betrayal) and he puts a unique spin on it whenever he works on something new. These are obsessions in his own life and he’s opening a window for an audience in order to step into his psyche, to step into his soul, and see what he sees, and feel what he feels, when he experiences life.
Carol stars Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as lesbian lovers in the 1950s, when such activities were not only morally condemned by society, but were dangerous to your life. They meet each other where Therese (Mara) works, and the title-named Carol comes to look for a present. Their infatuation is apparent almost immediately, but works up to a logical conclusion realistically. Their romance isn’t titillating or exploitative. What we, as an audience, are watching is a slice of possible life from that era, held under a microscope and analyzed. Very few things that happen seem to be happening because of a plot-required need. Rather, they exist in this world as organic life… not just the concoctions of a writer’s imagination.
Of course, their relationship is built on a foundation that has no support. Carol has a jealous ex-husband that wants her back and is pretty willing to destroy everything precious to her in her life in order to get her back. Therese is unsure of every aspect of her being–from what she wants to do with the rest of her life, to her sexuality. Their decision to be together seems like a bad idea from the start, with an entire world of odds stacked against them, but they try it anyway.
Probably the smartest decision of Carol was to not have any outright villains in the film. People may act villainously from time to time, or do things that are ugly to other people, but everyone is doing what they honestly think is best. Carol’s husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) threatens to take away all custody of their daughter from Carol. What he does to her is outrageously cruel, and calculating in how he plays a game of mental chess until everything works in his favor. But he’s not some mustache-twirling bad guy. He’s just a man who’s insecure with himself and only feels right when his family is whole. This fear and emptiness causes him to bad things. And while he’s certainly a bad person, he’s not some cackling-at-the-moon asshole. He’s just scared, and it’s easier to pity him than it is to hate him.
Todd Haynes’ strongest asset is his eye for detail. He’s an incredibly visual director, but not in an obvious, show-offy way. He doesn’t give in to stylistic masturbation like some Baz Luhrman setpiece. His eye for detail goes toward subtler touches… costumes, obviously; set design; Edward Lachman’s soft and beautiful cinematography. He plays with space in a brilliant, understated way. A simple framing of a shot can tell you everything you need to know about what a character is thinking. Instead of having a corny monologue about isolation, sadness and regret, Haynes frames a shot through a window with a huge piece of outside wall blocking and separating the subject of the shot from the rest of the crowd. And Carter Burwell’s music tells us the rest, about what this shot should tell us how to feel.
Carter Burwell’s original score for this movie is an unsung hero. It’s one of his best compositions in years.
Carol is based on the originally-written-under-a-pseudonym novel The Price of Salt. Todd Haynes has used the original text as a sort template to start off with in order to create something more personal to himself (like he did with the HBO remake of Mildred Pierce). What he’s subtly crafted is a quiet little drama that’s about a doomed romance with a glimmer of hope at the end on its surface, but it’s really about so much more. It’s deep without trying to prop itself up as being a grand statement. Carol is confidently written and directed enough to where it doesn’t have to depend on its metaphors to achieve any sort of excellence… just like any great piece of storytelling, those are just ingredients that enrich an already-great meal. It’s truly one of the best movies of 2015.