August 2, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

‘I’m Your Woman’ review: Rachel Brosnahan redefines the moll

When we first meet Jean (Rachel Brosnahan), she seems the very picture of a mobster’s trophy wife: beautiful, sullen, entitled, expendable. She’s lounging in her backyard in a leafy Pennsylvania suburb, smoking, nursing a drink and trying to rip off the tag still clinging to the fur-fringed gown she’s wearing. It’s the ’70s, as you can deduce from her hexagonal sunglasses, the sound of Bobbie Gentry crooning on the soundtrack and even the reverse-zoom movement of the camera as it slowly pulls back, revealing — in the first of many crucial shifts in perspective — the smallness and stultifying loneliness of Jean’s world.

Jean’s husband, Eddie (Bill Heck), is a thief. She knows that much at least, and is content not knowing much more. His dirty dealings have paid for her fabulous outfits and their comfortable house, with its ostentatious wallpaper and period-perfect yellows, browns and beiges. (The lustrous surfaces are the work of production designer Gae Buckley, costume designer Natalie O’Brien and cinematographer Bryce Fortner.)

They’ve also paid for the infant Eddie mysteriously brings home and plops into her arms that morning: “He’s our baby,” he says, and that’s that. Jean has learned not to ask too many questions — not now, as she accepts the child with shocked resignation, and not later, when Eddie closes the door on her with a smile, retreating into the next room with his gangster buddies.

That image is an obvious allusion to the ending of “The Godfather.” But it marks only the beginning of “I’m Your Woman,” Julia Hart’s beautiful, engrossing and potently subversive new crime thriller. Rather than immersing us in the sordid details of Eddie’s racket, the story leaves us stranded on the outside with Jean, a character who might have been quickly sidelined in a different movie: ignored, smacked around, maybe killed off. It was Jean-Luc Godard who once said the best way to criticize a film is to make another one. He also said all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun, an aphorism that will prove equally relevant here.

Rachel Brosnahan and Arinzé Kene in the movie “I’m Your Woman.”

(Wilson Webb / Amazon Studios)

But I’m getting far ahead. One of the virtues of “I’m Your Woman” (which Hart co-wrote with her husband and producer, Jordan Horowitz), is its adherence to the present tense (emphasis on the “tense”) and its poker-faced refusal to even foreshadow what’s to come. Jean knows nothing of her husband’s business, which is both a mercy and a liability, and her ignorance persists even when his latest gambit goes terribly wrong. Soon she’s escaping into the night with her baby, Harry (played by Justin and Jameson Charles), and an armed protector, Cal (Arinzé Kene, a charismatic brooder), who is intent on keeping her one step ahead of some unnamed pursuers.

Warning Jean never to lower her guard, Cal ushers her into a menacing world of near-death escapes and not-so-safe houses. Hart can build suspense with the smallest of gestures, as when a friendly-nosy neighbor (an excellent Marceline Hugot) comes a-knocking. It’s all quite the wake-up call for Jean, who at one point finds herself alone in a way she’s never been before, with only little Harry to keep her company. And if her domestic frustrations are telegraphed with perhaps one too many shots of her struggling to fry an egg, the gradual awakening of her own maternal instincts — and her embrace of a child she’s still getting to know — is among the picture’s subtlest satisfactions.

It would be hard to imagine a more dramatic departure for Brosnahan from her Emmy-winning turn in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” in which she gave us the 1950s New York housewife as blithely overconfident motormouth. In “I’m Your Woman,” she doesn’t just vanish behind long blond tresses and those big, moody shades. She shows us a woman confronting moment-to-moment terror for the first time — and discovering, in that confrontation, a resourcefulness and sheer nerve that she never knew she possessed.

Marsha Stephanie Blake sits on a bed in the movie "I'm Your Woman."

Marsha Stephanie Blake in the movie “I’m Your Woman.”

(Wilson Webb / Amazon Studios)

This isn’t the first time Hart has followed a woman on the run: Her 2018 thriller, “Fast Color,” starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a fugitive with remarkable powers, was a fresh, imaginative rewiring of both the superhero saga and the dystopian thriller. It established Hart as that rare filmmaker with the genre literacy, political imagination and filmmaking chops to radically defamiliarize even the most overworked genre template, seeding her characters’ fateful journeys with crucial, underexplored questions about gender and race. Those questions arise organically in “I’m Your Woman,” which, for all its ’70s feminist-noir revisionism, gives stealthily equivalent weight to the Black characters who find themselves drawn, less by will than necessity, into Jean’s desperate orbit.

There’s a remarkable early scene in which Cal and Jean are interrogated by a white police officer, clearly rattled by the sight of a Black man and a white woman traveling together in the same car. The resolution of that situation, which depends entirely on Jean’s disproportionate privilege, is effective enough in pure movie-movie terms, but the deeper, uglier sting of the encounter lingers. Jean and Cal’s dynamic deepens still further once she’s thrown into unnervingly close quarters with his family: his watchful father, Art (Frankie Faison); his young son, Paul (De’Mauri Parks); and his quietly formidable wife, Teri (a stellar Marsha Stephanie Blake), who proceeds to give Jean a fierce education in the art of survival.

Cal’s most important advice, which gets repeated more than once, is “Don’t look back.” But for all the relentless linearity of “I’m Your Woman,” the unpredictable road that Jean and her companions are traveling will lead them perhaps inescapably backward, so that distant wrongs can be confronted and rectified. Fittingly enough, that describes Hart’s approach as well. With cool-toned assurance, warm-hued visuals and a well-timed blast of Aretha Franklin, she excavates and interrogates the ghosts of movies past, suggesting they may hold at least one key to our cinematic future.

‘I’m Your Woman’

Rating: R, for violence and language

Running time: 2 hours

Playing: In limited release where theaters are open; available Dec. 11 on Amazon Prime Video