Oh the pain, the fucking pain. That’s all one can think of while watching Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) get out of a car to throw up from the emotional agony of being cast aside by Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett). After locking eyes with the latter at the department store where Therese works, it was over–Therese was a goner. Mainly because Carol has more finesse and suave moves than anyone with a dick, and kind of looks and acts like Betty Draper would if she had continued to stay with Don and eventually surrendered to the other sex for solace and comfort.
As a “more mature” woman living the housewife life in New Jersey, Carol possesses the sort of aloofness and confidence that attracts Therese far more than any of the gawky, graceless male suitors she’s encountered. When Therese recommends that Carol buys her daughter, Rindy (Sadie and Kk Heim), a train set instead of a doll, she’s immediately receptive. The allusion to the fact that Therese preferred to play with trains rather than dolls as a child is enough to let Carol know everything she needs to–these types of cliches often hold true, after all. And so, though we’ll never know if it was Carol’s deliberate intention or not, she leaves her gloves on the counter, prompting Therese to send them back to her in the hope of some sort of recognition. Carol, of course, obliges her, calling her while she’s at work to invite her out to lunch.
When the two meet the next day, the tension is electric. It’s evident from the start that Therese is enamored of Carol’s poise, of her self-assurance. And yet, it isn’t until the end of the second act that the two finally give in to the dance they’ve been doing. In fact, the word “lesbian” is tiptoed around so much in the film that it isn’t even mentioned. “Immoral,” sure, but never “lesbian.” Because the movie is based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, there is a certain literary quality to the subtlety of Todd Haynes directorial style, which he undoubtedly applied from the experience of some of his other titles, like Far From Heaven and I’m Not There. Phyllis Nagy’s debut screenplay and adaptation also lends a certain veracity to the tale, perhaps thanks to her history of playwriting for the Royal Court Theater.
As Therese grows fonder of Carol, the contentions between her and her husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler), give way to custody threats and exposing Carol’s history of indecency with another woman, Abby Gerhard (Sarah Paulson), her best friend and former lover. When Harge takes drastic measures by ripping Rindy from Carol on Christmas Eve, Carol decides to go on a road trip, inviting Therese along with her. Although Therese has a boyfriend, Richard (Jake Lacy), she doesn’t think twice about going with Carol, the only person who has ever made her feel even a modicum of excitement.
For the first part of the road trip, their relations remain chaste, even when Therese makes comments like, “Why not get the Presidential suite? If the rate’s attractive.” The buildup is palpable as they arrive in Waterloo, Iowa just in time for New Year’s Eve. It is here that Carol finally takes the reins by disrobing, prompting Therese to urge, “Take me to bed.” Their night of passion, unfortunately, has consequences as the traveling salesman, Tommy Tucker (Cory Michael Smith), they met earlier on in their journey is actually a private investigator Harge hired to get the final evidence he needs to destroy Carol’s custody rights in court.
Distraught, to say the least, Carol drives to the next town, soothing Therese by telling her that the incident isn’t her fault, and that she wanted it to happen just as much as Therese. Still, this doesn’t stop Carol from leaving Therese in Abby’s care so she can return to Jersey on her own to handle Harge. She also leaves Abby with a letter to give to Therese, the one that breaks her heart and incites her to vomit on the way back to New York.
Heeding Carol’s instructions to stay away and move on, she throws herself into a new career, capitalizing on her talents as a photographer to land a job at The New York Times–though in The Price of Salt, Therese’s art lies in theater set design. As she begins to go through the motions of daily life more willingly, she pushes Carol to the back of her mind, just as Carol is finally realizing what a grave error she made in not telling Therese to wait for her. With the legal battles over Rindy leading nowhere, Carol finally takes a stand by offering Harge full custody with her having rights to visit when she wants. She declares, “I can’t go against my own grain anymore.” With that, she sets about reaching out to Therese.
Upon receiving Carol’s note to meet her for a drink, Therese appears more enraged than delighted. Still reeling and recovering from the ease with which Carol abandoned her, Therese throws the note in the trash. Later, however, she shows up to hear Carol out. Carol, more reserved than she’s ever been, tells Therese that she’s gotten a job as a furniture buyer and has bought an apartment that’s “big enough for two.” She then tells Therese that if she won’t live with her, then perhaps she’ll join her later at the Oak Room with some of her friends. Therese rebuffs both propositions, defiant out of the residual pain Carol inflicted on her. Just as Carol announces, “I love you,” an old acquaintance of Therese’s calls her name, interrupting the moment of tenderness. He offers her a ride to a party they’re both going to, which Carol encourages and then gathers her things to leave.
While at the party, Therese encounters the same old feelings of loneliness in a crowd, even when another same-sex oriented woman, Genevieve Cantrell (Carrie Brownstein, in a somewhat inane cameo), expresses interest in her. The feeling sends her practically running to the Oak Room, where she spots Carol in a corner. When their eyes meet again, it’s as though all of the obstacles from before have melted away. And maybe it is because they are both women that it doesn’t come across half as tritely as a male-female romance. In fact, one hardly thinks of them as “lesbians” throughout the narrative, so much as forbidden lovers with more authenticity in emotion than most straight couples. And, best of all, Carol (and The Price of Salt) doesn’t adhere to the tragic ending forced upon most homosexual relationships of this era, as was the case with Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist in Brokeback Mountain–a film with a distinctly Bush administration perspective.