In her impressive directorial debut Woman of the Hour, actress-turned-director Anna Kendrick builds on a horrifying true crime case to deliver an unflinching look at how women, being held at different standards than their male counterparts, are continuously forced to make uncomfortable, difficult, and sometimes life-altering choices that say more about the men around them than themselves.
A harrowing, unforgettable film that is remarkably constructed in flashbacks while cutting to a gaming show where most of the film’s current events take place, this is an unfussy, strong work that will resonate with mainstream audiences once it hits Netflix in the future (the streaming giant acquired worldwide rights at TIFF for $11M) as well as arthouse audiences looking for intelligent pictures with striking social commentary.
Perhaps the most laudable aspect of this film is how it manages to be most horrifying not during moments where crime is shown on screen, but rather at the most natural, ordinary moments where everything is seemingly going according to plan – from a male perspective, that is. An anti-Barbie of sorts, the film shows, in glaring detail, what it meant, and still means, to be a woman when you’re constantly on display, always having to appeal and be likable, when your power to own your voice and express your views is stripped away from you so casually that it never feels like you’ve been robbed.
This ‘casual’ loss of your own sense of existence is what makes Woman of the Hour extremely timely. Aside from the physical pain its female characters endure, the emotional duress they experience throughout the picture speaks volumes as to how abuse can appear so invisible, undetected, and deceptively nonexistent to a point where it becomes hard to prove, especially when those investigating it fail to see it from the perspective of the victim. And for those who seek to prove it, let alone defy it, the price can be ridicule, social alienation or simply lack of empathy that renders the female victim incapable of truly healing from the ordeal.
The year is 1979. Rodney Alcala, one of the most ruthless serial killers in U.S. history, appears on a popular primetime dating show, ‘The Dating Game’, in which three new bachelors are introduced every week to a guest female who must ask them a series of often amusing questions in order to decide which of the three would become her date. The prize is lofty: an all-expenses paid trip for the lovebirds.
Cutting back and forth between what happens on that day, when a serial killer simply goes on air as one of the three bachelors without any background checks on the show’s part and what happened 8 years earlier when Alcala embarked on his killing spree, the film focuses on Sheryl (wonderfully played by Kendrick), an aspiring actress who’s been in L.A. for a couple of years but failed to land any acting gigs. Ambitious, smart and an introvert, Sheryl’s social life seems to be lacking and her only connection is an incompetent acting coach who constantly hits on her, making use of the fact she has no one to lean on to.
Frustrated that she’s unable to even justify her existence in L.A. anymore, Sherly accepts the only gig available: to appear as a guest on the Dating Game. In one of the film’s most remarkable scenes, she is briefed pre-show on how she’s supposed to look, say, and sound like on-screen: a lifeless, doll of a woman who’s supposed to smile, nod and simply do what she’s told. The set of questions she’s supposed to ask the bachelors on air are handed out to her in advance and the only thing left is for her to act.
The film’s finest and most impactful moment soon follows as Sherly decides to flip the script, quietly revolting against her perceived role. She writes and asks her own questions to the bachelors, resulting in a seemingly comedic, but inherently scary, 15-minute sequence where the true face of toxic masculinity, gender prejudice, tokenism and female objectification appear on-screen. It’s such a striking scene that, even though it’s preceded and followed by flashbacks of Alcala’s despicable crimes, still manages to encapsulate what Woman of the Hour is truly about, effortlessly sending out a painful reminder on what it feels like to have to smile in the face of terror, how hard it is to navigate a never-ending dark tunnel of inequality and abuse and how women’s everyday existence is often an act of courage, rebellion, and resilience.
This review is from the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. Woman of the Hour will be released by Netflix at a future date.