Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore in Todd Haynes’s “May December.” Image credit: Cannes Film Festival

Our Neighbor From Hell

"May December" asks hard questions about what a community does with its monsters

May December by Gloria Sanchez Productions, Killer Films, & MountainA, directed by Todd Haynes, written by Samy Burch & Alex Mechanik, starring Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore (2024)

An absolute bare minimum expectation for the basic survival of any community is having the means to re-incorporate transgressors. A community that cannot do this will die – and is arguably not a community at all, but just some people who happen to hang out. Real, durable communities, the kind that you can actually live in rather than just visit, need to have some method, some way at all, for reintegration and forgiveness. 2023’s May December makes this really, really unappealing.

May December follows the creation of a film within the film. Produced by Natalie Portman and Will Ferrell, it is a descent into the heart of darkness of Savannah, Georgia. The story follows Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), an actress who has been cast to portray Gracie (Julianne Moore) in a film version of Gracie’s life. Gracie is a predator: she raped a 13-year-old when she was 36, destroying her marriage and sending her to both prison and tabloid fame. Gracie and her victim, Joe (Charles Melton), have continued their relationship for the intervening 23 years, are married, outwardly happy, and even have three children. In one of many structural rhymes between the present and past of the film, the action takes place when the youngest twins (the third is an elder daughter) are graduating from high school – and thus are the same age their father was when they were born.

Gracie is unsurprisingly uncomfortable with the new attention that comes with a film being made of her life, her scandal. She has not forgotten the social opprobrium that comes from raping a 13-year-old, raising a family with her victim, and remaining in the town that knows everything: feces are mailed to their house frequently enough that she claims a “sixth sense” for it. In fact, she’s perfectly blasé about her unsolicited subscription to Shit By Mail in comparison to the horror any question about her relationship with her older children induces. She has not forgotten, but she has acclimated to her status as not-quite-a-pariah and manages to function within that role on a regular basis.

This is the state of affairs Elizabeth, the actor, enters into when she arrives to study her new role. She goes to great lengths to tell Gracie, and anybody who asks, that she wanted to play the part because she found Gracie a complex character with depths that were unfairly sandblasted out by the tabloids and news stories she herself had seen when she was 13 – another intentional number choice in the plot, as it means that Elizabeth and Joe are the same age. She strains to learn as much as she can about Gracie, to see who Gracie is, to understand Gracie’s mind and be as fair to Gracie on the screen as possible.

Gracie does not make this easy. The most awful thing she does in the film is rape a 13-year-old boy. But hardly a scene goes by without giving you another reason to hate her. The film balances not between Gracie’s history of bad actions and a tragic backstory or a faltering redemption arc or a generally nice personality or even just some basic charm, but between a bad person and a gratuitously bad person. She is controlling, manipulative, and cruel. She frequently calls her daughters fat, by way of underhanded compliments and gifts (her graduation present to her older daughter is a scale). Later in the film one of Gracie’s clients for her home bakery business cancels her order, sending Gracie into a spiral. The client had canceled because she had to move to take care of a sick family member; Gracie dismisses this as a bullshit and unfair reason. Joe and Gracie share a love of nature and animals (they worked together at a pet store before Gracie went to prison); Joe expresses this love of animals by incubating and raising butterflies to release back into the wild and replenish their population, while Gracie hunts.1Or perhaps poaches. She does not wear hi-vis while hunting; in fact, she wears plausibly deniable camouflage, indicating some combination of incompetence and dangerous recklessness – or more likely, awareness that she is doing something illegal like hunting out of season or without a license and is trying to minimize risk. 

All of this combines rancidly with her aggressive need to sand off any perceived flaws in a completely flailing, unstrategic manner: she more often blows off sympathetic flaws than unsympathetic ones, cementing her as both incredibly unself aware and utterly unashamed of her cruelty. 

Most characters undermine their own credibility directly: Gracie’s ex husband admits that he didn’t see any warning signs of a failing marriage and caps off his interview with Elizabeth by shrugging “what do I know.” Gracie’s former employer at the pet store summarizes his awareness of events by pointing to a newspaper photograph of himself wide-eyed, mouth agape. Joe’s lack of confidence in the health of his obviously unhealthy relationship is a central arc. Gracie’s defense attorney is perhaps the only witness who comes across as reliable, and he provides some of the most damning testimony of all, sarcastically noting that Gracie still seems convinced, after 23 years, that the only problem with raping a 13-year-old was that other people got mad at her.

All of this is to establish one key bona fide: Gracie is, in addition to being a sexual predator, unrepentant and profoundly unlikeable. She is comprehensively and holistically awful. Her interactions with Elizabeth reveal interesting parallels, because Elizabeth is also a strikingly horrible person. Some of this seems to be a result of her going method…too method: at one point she tells her director that she doesn’t like a candidate for her co-star because he isn’t sexy enough – said candidate is a 12-year-old auditioning to play a 13-year-old.2In perhaps the funniest line in the movie, the director responds to this with just, “You gotta come back.” She discusses sex scenes with a high-school drama class in ways that were already incredibly unprofessional and creepy before she starts hitting on one of the students. And in a moment that is disturbing even by the standards of May December, she sexually manipulates Joe into giving her a very, very confidential letter Gracie had written 23 years ago, accelerating her identification with her subject to the level of “sexually manipulating the exact same victim.” She doesn’t even do any aftercare. And not all of her awful behaviors can be laid at the feet of method acting, because she has been cheating on her fiance with her director for some significant chunk of time.3It doesn’t carry that much ethical weight to me, but it is cliche to the point of cringe that said director is older, married, and French. In most other movies Elizabeth would qualify as a profoundly unlikable villain, but Gracie’s flaws are the burning sun to Elizabeth’s taper light. You could eliminate 90% of what is wrong with Gracie and you would still not want to associate with her; if you eliminated 100% of what is wrong with Gracie she would disappear like wet cotton candy.

And in spite of that, she is still a member of her community.

She is not popular, nor upstanding, nor a leader. Nobody would describe her as a pillar of the community. But she is there, and this community must find ways to integrate her, to engage with her. The alternative, to banish her, has miserable consequences. First and foremost, she is married to Joe and has three children with him: banishing her means banishing them, and so further victimizing her victims. From a more pragmatic perspective, keeping her integrated into the community means that her activities can be watched, her energies directed. She has a cottage baking operation that occupies much of her time. Her lawyer points out to Elizabeth that Gracie does not have a large client base; she gets many repeat orders from a handful of people, including the lawyer’s wife. Elizabeth assesses this as “keeping her busy,” and the lawyer calls it “a kindness.” Both of these are true. Gracie is immune to productive introspection, as so many of us are, and there is no reason to believe she would respond to boredom in a healthy manner. She speaks proudly of being too busy to think about the past, and she reacts with confusion and even disgust when Elizabeth says she likes to think about what she’s done and where she’s come from. Gracie’s preference is to look forward, to keep pushing, to have her eyes planted forward. The alternative is to have a listless, angry, and narcissistic sexual predator wandering the social wilderness.

For the socialist mind, all of this provokes difficult and unappealing questions. Our goal is to create a society that is fairer, that doesn’t lock people in cages indefinitely, that doesn’t break up families, and that ultimately provides for as many people as possible a better life than the one they live today. Ostracization, execution, and banishment are tools that must be used carefully and sparingly: when a person is expelled from a hobbyist group, the group can simply live as if the expelled person no longer exists. Society as a whole does not share this moral luxury. For a society, that person is still somewhere,4Yes even if they are dead. Their ideas, their memory, will continue to echo among the living unpredictably. and their expulsion is going to have negative consequences for all the other people, innocent or not, whose lives are enmeshed with theirs. This is an obvious and major problem with the existing prison system and why we wish to destroy it: if a person is in prison, that creates a hole in so many other lives.

As much as it pains us to admit it, some people just suck. Gracie is a rapist, she is cruel, and she is cringe. Working with prisoners teaches you that many people who have made bad or even horrible choices in life still have many redeeming qualities, and this is what we put at the forefront of advocating for a more just treatment of the incarcerated. But there is not actually any physical-psychological law for a conservation of character flaws: a charming person may be moral or immoral, but so can a deeply annoying person. The complexity of a human life means that we can, will, run into people who are awful in a kaleidoscope of ways.

And how does Savannah live with this utterly toxic member? “Room for improvement” is probably the mildest assessment. It is worth emphasizing that there is not a united front within the community on how to handle her: while there are people who are willing to spend money to keep Gracie busy, there are others sending her packages of feces. They seem to have managed to quarantine her away from any obvious problem positions like “youth pastor,” but she is also going hunting without any hi vis, so clearly she’s got the freedom to be a public health hazard. And if we focus in a little more tightly on her personal life and her family, Gracie treats her children terribly, body-shaming both daughters and son, and her marriage with Joe invariably involves her refusal to discuss any of his emotional issues. Gracie can express negative emotions and receive support; Joe cannot. The strategy seems to be not healing the wounds Gracie has inflicted on the community, so much as delay and mitigation. She continues to have relationships with her loved ones; she doesn’t seem to develop many new relationships. She is present, but not in leadership or, critically, around children other than her own. It is easy to recall worse strategies that humans have tried over history: strategies that would collectively punish her children are common; strategies that spiral into blood feuds with dozens dead are easy to find. It is less easy to find but easy to imagine a strategy that would produce better results: requiring Gracie to confront the damage she’s done, to have the community talk, openly and honestly, about what steps need to be taken to heal rather than just quietly improvising ways to survive. Survival has been achieved here; healing has not.

As for us in the real world, trying to heal that world: if the best solution we can come up with for dealing with awful people is total exclusion, we will have to content ourselves with the limited ambitions of hobbyist groups, our grasp never reaching the level of communities, let alone whole societies. And to be perfectly blunt, we do not need a great deal of imagination to improve society while also surviving some awful people being in that society: humans have millions of tools for this problem: we have been working on it since before we had writing. The question about how we are to deal with difficult people is not primarily an intellectual problem; we will not fail at this task because nobody’s thought about it enough. It is a question of will: are we willing to accept that we have to live alongside people we dislike, even despise, as part of the package deal of building a better society? Or would we rather limit our political ambitions to the scope of a friend group? I am not strident enough to pretend having shitty neighbors wouldn’t bother me, but I am willing to pay that price in the service of making this whole rotten world a little better for all of us. ~

Author

  • Kyle Flannery

    Kyle Flannery is a co-editor of Strange Matters based in NYC. His focus is on cultural critique, particularly from post-colonial and anthropological perspectives. He reads Bureau of Labor Statistics tables for fun, the sicko.

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Strange Matters is a cooperative magazine of new and unconventional thinking in economics, politics, and culture.