Michelle Monaghan, one of the most underappreciated actresses working today, has starred in two films — both tiny indies — in which she portrays a character employed in a stereotypically masculine job who is struggling to juggle her work responsibilities with the stereotypically feminine responsibility of raising a young child.
The first, which came out six years ago, was James Mottern‘s Trucker, and she deserved a best actress Oscar nomination for her work. (Don’t take my word for it; the late Roger Ebert wrote at the time, “Her performance clearly deserves an Oscar nomination.”) Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of the film’s tiny distributor, Monterey Media, Trucker never quite made it onto the radar of the Academy’s acting branch.
The second, which was released in New York over the weekend, is Claudia Myers‘ Fort Bliss, in which Monaghan is equally good — and even includes a little Trucker homage. It is my hope, as an admirer of Monaghan and someone who recognizes how wide open this year’s best actress Oscar category is, that history will not repeat itself. (Disconcertingly, this film’s distributor, Phase 4 Films, was recently acquired by eOne, which may be more focused on VOD prospects than awards campaigning; it recently sold away the U.S. distribution rights to Cannes prize-winner Maps to the Stars, which it had co-financed.)
In Fort Bliss, Monaghan — whom many will recognize from big studio fare like Made of Honor (2008) and two Mission: Impossible films (2006 and 2011), as well as this year’s hit HBO anthology series True Detective, but whose best work has come in indies, such as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), Gone Baby Gone (2007) and Source Code (2011) — plays U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Maggie Swann, a medic who has just come home after a 15-month tour in Afghanistan. Overseas, she was a hero, earning a bronze star for saving multiple lives in the line of fire. Here, she is a lost soul, traumatized by several things that she experienced over there on and off the battlefield but trying to reconstruct her life and reconnect with her young son, who has been living with her ex-husband and his fiancee and barely even remembers her.
This is not the first film that has shown the troubles that many veterans face after returning to domestic life — that impressive subgenre of the war film includes classic Oscar winners such as The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Coming Home (1978) and The Hurt Locker (2009). But it is the first that I know of to focus on the travails of a female in such a situation, some of which a male probably wouldn’t experience (see the 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary feature The Invisible War), and that makes it all the more interesting.
Still, without a top-notch actress, this film wouldn’t work. The character of Swann is, in many ways, complicated, flawed and unlikable — she makes one decision that leaves you smacking your head in dismay — but the audience still has to empathize with her and, thanks to Monaghan’s talent and screen persona, it does. The 38-year-old actress, whose intelligent but wounded eyes remind me of Stockard Channing‘s, is, as The New York Times‘ Manohla Dargis wrote, “One of those performers you’re always happy to see.” Here, in a good movie, she gives a performance that THR‘s film critic labeled “strong,” another trade’s reviewer described as “flawless” and I call worthy of serious consideration.