The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio chugs right along for a great majority of its running time as a primally effective but generally repetitive and nothing-new tearjerker about the strength of a mother's love. It seems to hit all its big story beats multiple times with no real variance between each one; we see Woody Harrelson being a drunk abusive douchebag several times, we see Julianne Moore sacrificing a personal luxury for the sake of her children several times, etc. In other words, we really aren't seeing much, but the movie's constant melodrama and the strong execution of these personal tragedies at least keeps it from being totally uneventful. It's over the top, but Moore is on hand to make sure it's lively. Harrelson seems inappropriately cast and anachronistic; I really don't think he works well in drama, short of The Messenger.
The ending, on the other hand, completely dismantles everything. It's an icky "everything's gonna be all right" coda resting itself on the power of Harrelson's atonement, which is weak as piss. For what I'm assuming to be a proto-feminist period piece, the notion that Evelyn Ryan could shield herself from the pain of an abusive marriage with a day trip to Texas and a fistful of money is borderline insulting. This may be because the movie is exponentially more comfortable with depicting Kelly Ryan as a monstrous, imprudent, emasculated drunk than as a loving father or husband, washing out any of his sympathetic traits and making him less of an "antagonist" so much as a straight-out "villain." The movie's feints at Evelyn recognizing the pain and injustice of her situation - a couple of off-handed lines, a scathing remark pointed at Kelly - are the most interesting parts of the movie, but sadly her refusal to change her milieu for the sake of her or her kids makes her seem flat-out dumb. There's sacrifice, which we see the character work through many times through the course of the movie, and then there's saccharine martyrdom.
The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio isn't an utter waste of time, but it just gets more and more infuriating right up to the ending, which in addition to its previously-discussed problems is packed with some "and here they are now!" gimmickry. It's cheap and sentimental and utterly worthless, much like Moore's fourth-wall shattering narration, but it becomes apparent very quickly that the movie isn't really bothering with subtlety. When you have the services of one of our greatest dramatic actresses on hand and all you really ask of her is to giggle with bittersweet longing and cry on command exactly once, tricks that Moore could do in her sleep, there's an obvious waste of potential there. She does it beautifully, of course, but all it does is bring attention to the movie's true lack of substance or psychological complexity.