Under the grey skies of Glasgow, Rose-Lynn Harlan dreams big. She’s just been released after a prison stint and has returned to her two young children. Barely an adult herself, she seems uncomfortable with her role as a mother and imagines giving up her life to perform at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee. Deeply invested in self-mythology and with a distinctively wild streak, Rose-Lynn wants to be a country music star and will do just about anything to make it happen. On her forearm, she has tattooed the words “Three chords and the truth,” the succinct and poetic summary of her chosen vocation.
As Rose-Lynn, Jessie Buckley gives a career-defining performance. She walks and talks like she was forged from the dirt of the Rio Grande before being transplanted to Scotland. Her performance is brash and expressive, naturalistic and larger than life. Buckley completely embodies a woman who is all in but has a strong self-destructive impulse. Rose-Lynn has a way of flubbing opportunities and in spite of a country music screed tattooed into her flesh, she struggles consistently with truthfulness. Her self-destructiveness informs her country music persona but also prevents her from fulfilling her ambitions. Constantly torn between dreams and expectations, she is willing to put it all on the line until her ego is challenged and she implodes.
Truth becomes the film’s central theme. This applies most obviously to the way Rose-Lynn cuts corners and conceals facts to get ahead, but is also about her relationship to music. For Rose-Lynn, music is an escape from the real world but what she will need to do is bring her truth to her writing and performing, something she resists over the course of the film. She is on a mythic journey to face the reality of her circumstances and the tension of the film lies in whether her ambitions will survive if she can’t fulfill her quest for authenticity.
While the screenplay has few surprises, it handles the contradictions of Rose-Lynn’s behaviour with aplomb. Her relationship with her family, in particular, is rife with conflict as she struggles to find a balance between her aspirations and her responsibilities. While she is certainly a larger than life and incredibly charismatic person, Rose-Lynn also has a distinctively shitty streak and the movie doesn’t shy away from exposing her as self-centred and mean-spirited. When her character hits certain low points, the movie dares you to stay on track as she increasingly crosses into unforgivable territories. It is a testament to both Buckley’s performance and the film’s direction that Rose-Lynn is able to embody so many contradictions and still feel whole.
What really sells the film, though, is that the music is actually good. Buckley is not only a talented actress but a great singer. She not only nails the country twang but commands an incredible stage presence. The musical sequences are incredibly strong and reminiscent (in a good way) of last year’s A Star Is Born. The style of music is different, but the shooting style in both films leans into rich, warm colours and intimate close-ups. From the first time she performs, the film evokes powerfully that Rose-Lynn isn’t just talking the talk, she is a real talent. The power of being able to reveal that just through performance is incredible. It’s one thing to be told someone has what it takes to be a star, it’s another thing to witness it.
Wild Rose might be conventional, but it hits all the right notes. Buckley gives one of the best performances in recent memory and her staggering presence holds together the film’s various twists and turns. The movie has a strong sense of atmosphere and uses Buckley’s love of music to instill beauty and poetry in the mythic landscapes of the country music scene. Fair warning though: the Scottish accents are pretty thick and potentially indecipherable even for an English language speaker, but the animated performances sell the dialogue regardless. ■
Wild Rose opens in theatres on Friday, July 5. Watch the trailer here: