The Toronto International Film Festival offers a Secret Movie Club, where they screen brand new independent films online where you won’t know what you’re watching until you press play. You can sign up for a screening a month from now through the winter. The films are introduced by NOW Magazine film reviewer Norm Wilner. The first film, I’m Your Woman, was available this weekend, with more coming in the months ahead.
Directed by Julia Hart | Written by Hart and Jordan Horowitz | 120 min | TIFF Secret Movie Club and on Amazon Prime in December
It’s a terrific concept for a crime drama, but also to deconstruct it: Tell the story from the perspective of the wife of the killer. Imagine Heat — Michael Mann is on the top of a list of Special Thanks in the I’m Your Woman credits — where instead of focusing on Vincent Hanna, Neil McCauley, and their respective crews, the whole movie was about Ashley Judd’s Charlene Shiherlis. (This fresh approach is typical of Hart, who took an unusual swing at superhero mythology in her last picture, Fast Color.)
But now imagine that instead of being a capable, tough-as-nails gangster’s moll, Charlene was almost totally clueless about her husband’s crimes, and so sheltered she’s incapable of doing anything for herself, whether it’s frying an egg or driving a car. That’s the scenario we get with Jean (Rachel Brosnahan), whose bad-boy husband, Eddie (Bill Heck), leaves her one night and doesn’t come home. Instead, Cal (Arinzé Kene) shows up and ushers Jean to a safe house, telling her very little about what’s been going on.
Complicating matters is that Jean has been recovering from the trauma of a miscarriage, and shortly before Eddie’s disappearance he dropped off a baby at the house. Jean has no idea who the baby’s birth mother is — just add that to the mysteries the film is happy to leave scattered through the narrative, leaving Jean always at a loss about the world she’s living in, and who wants to hurt her and her new charge.
All this makes Jean a deeply frustrating central character. She has no agency — she’s defined mostly by her maternal instinct and not wanting to get shot. It doesn’t help that Brosnahan plays her with a single, repeating note. She’s consistent, which helps maintain some suspense, I suppose, but the lack of personality renders her almost terminally dull. I know Brosnahan has fans from her show, The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, but here her character has no nuance. She’s just chronically overwhelmed.
Things improve late in the running with the arrival of a family she can trust — including Marsha Stephanie Blake as Teri and the legendary Frankie Faison as Art, who gives Jean a gun. But, even then, so much happens off-screen our characters end up just telling each other stories about what we’re not seeing, denying the audience a chance to participate.
There’s no doubt Hart is a talented filmmaker — there’s a scene mid-film that brilliantly uses Aretha Franklin’s version of “Natural Woman,” and we get a few surprises in the final stretch that are almost cheer-worthy. The set design is also excellent — this is solidly and convincingly set in the 1970s, shot in and around Philadelphia.
I very much appreciate what Hart is trying to execute here, but by taking a subtractive approach with this crime thriller she’s failed to avoid the dramatic debits that come with it.