“There was a time,” asserts Evelyn Ryan (Julianne Moore), “when ingenuity and a little bit of luck could feed a family of 12.” According to Jane Anderson’s doting, adorable, and often disturbing The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, Evelyn is caught up in a schizzy existence. She first appears talking about herself, two Evelyns in frame: one the “good” (complacent, family-focused) ‘50s housewife, the other literally standing beside herself, narrating her own activities.
Evelyn’s very visible split here is striking, and the idea of it sustained by various means throughout Prize Winner. Her life follows a strikingly stereotypical trajectory: her family, 10 kids and machinist husband Kelly (Woody Harrelson in a bad wig and tummy pillow), regard her as their rock. Kelly has particular “issues,” in the form of a mangled throat (a singer when they met—here shown in sweet-young-love flashback—he’s injured in car accident). Now he’s a miserable drunk and avoid sports fan who frightens his children and spends food and mortgage money on liquor. To avoid looking at him, they watch tv, eat meals on their laps, do homework, and generally gather round their brilliant mom. She serves all well, her bright plasticky smile reassuring all her dependents that life will continue as advertised.
Evelyn’s own interest in advertising is both practical and monumentally metaphorical. As she puts it, even as Kelly lost his voice, “I kept mine,” meaning she sublimates her early aspirations to be a journalist into writing ad copy, most often in the form of “jingles” or catchy pieces of poems, for Dr. Pepper, Dial soap, Maidenform, Beechnut, and Paper Mate (“Brighten your ballpoint of view”), among others. While she supports and exploits an expanding commercial culture, her “contesting” also grants the Ryans literal income—prize monies, cars and trips to cash in, supermarket giveaways. And though Kelly is plainly threatened by her success, he also relies on it, never moving to behave differently, and in fact, becoming more draining and difficult over time.
Evelyn handles this ongoing challenge with a sunny resilience that is occasionally alarming. The movie surrounds her indications of her “happiness” (including an animated montage that accompanies her listing of prizes, like a palm tree, a lifetime supply of birdseed, clothing, and a pony), and a “support network.” This would be her passel of mostly anonymous children and a coterie of other contesters, the Affadaisies, organized by Dortha (Laura Dern) and including an always beaming lady in an iron lung painted happy-yellow (such irony, while perverse, gives the movie an occasional welcome edge). Among her supporters, young and peer-ish, she is venerated, and she in turn appreciates her kids’ excellent behavior (apparently not a one gets into trouble, save for a minor car accident) and the intellect of her fellow repressed housewives.
Diffusing Kelly’s sometimes violent outbursts (scary to the kids, who hide their faces and cover their ears) by laughing, joking, or cajoling, she rarely reveals the toll it takes on her. And when she does, the film almost cracks open into some other sort of text entirely. Her revelations take various forms, including a heart-to-heart with teenaged daughter Tuff (on whose memoir the film is based, and who is played here by Ellary Porterfield), where she insists that she’s never regretted her marriage and that feeling depressed would just be a waste of time. (Poor Tuff looks perplexed for a moment, but also sees in her mother wondrous, era-shaped strength.)
But even as Prize Winner goes through these odd motions to set Evelyn’s taxing context and her admirable survival, its most extraordinary moment turns surreal. Arguing with Kelly for the unmpteenth time about his inability to pay for the milk that’s delivered weekly, she enters the house carrying a dozen or so milk bottles. Their disagreement escalates, they engage physically, briefly, and as she pulls away, she falls, crashing onto the floor, with milk and glass flying everywhere, in slow motion. Kelly is horrified, the kids (who are always everywhere in the frame) are frightened, and mother, her wrists bloodied by her effort to break her fall into shards of milk bottle glass, struggles to get to her feet amid the slippery red and white liquid that swirls around her.
It’s difficult to guess what anyone had in mind for this image, but the effect is startling: the ultimate mother, at once ideal and wretched, awash in symbols of her function in life. A neighbor takes her to the hospital and she returns hours later with her wrists wrapped as dazzling white emblems of her abjection. Undone (again), his head hanging, Kelly greets her return with a cup of tea, then takes her upstairs to help her out of her girdle, soaked in milk for the entire afternoon.
This bizarre scene in the bathroom - his effort to remove the squishy, milky girdle as she straddles and leans away from him—almost tops the one of the spilled bloody milk, as he endeavors (again) to apologize for his ridiculously selfish and ugly behavior. “I just want to make you happy,” he moans, his platitude demonstrating the lack of imagination that is his real crime in Evelyn’s eyes. And so she schools him: “I don’t need you to make me happy. I just need you to leave me alone when I am.”
Kelly can’t comprehend the devastation that impels this request, as the movie posits him as just too dumb to get her. But you’re left with another sense of Evelyn altogether, one that runs parallel to the shrine to her functions as durable housewife and loving mom. She is, as Tuff recognizes, disappointed, but she is also a perfect product of her time, turning her anger into Bundt cakes even as the movie turns her distress into a peculiar sort of antic melodrama. Evelyn’s nuances (at least indicated by Moore’s performance) are lost in a shuffle of visual activity, which simultaneously underscores and distracts from the stress of maintaining surfaces.