'The Most Hated Woman in America': Film Review | SXSW 2017

Melissa Leo lights up this uneven take on the life and murder of the outspoken American Atheists founder.

While introducing The Most Hated Woman in America at its SXSW world premiere, filmmaker Tommy O’Haver called his darkly satirical portrait of brazenly outspoken atheist activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair a “really sick and twisted” story.

Thanks to a tasty take-no-prisoners lead performance by Melissa Leo, it can also be a lot of fun, even if the Netflix original film’s dramatic dividends prove less satisfying.

A true-crime story surrounding the 1995 disappearance of the controversial American Atheists founder, who, along with her son and granddaughter, had abruptly gone missing from their Austin, Texas, home, the film wastes little time establishing who’s in charge here. Even though she’s shown for the first time with her head covered by a black hood and her hands tied, Leo’s tough-talking O’Hair still has no problem making her formidable presence known to both her kidnappers and the audience.

Skipping back and forth through the decades, O’Haver and co-screenwriter Irene Turner, who previously collaborated on An American Crime, offer a handy primer about the woman who was first given her “Hated” nickname in a 1964 Life magazine article (which, oddly, is shown as a Look magazine article in the film).

While the main reason for that widespread disdain had a lot to do with the unwed mom’s successful 1963 lawsuit that resulted in scripture reading being disallowed in American public schools, her establishment of the American Atheists organization that same year didn’t exactly endear her to bible-thumpers.

Three decades later, the disappearance of the then 76-year-old and her family doesn’t immediately raise the suspicions of the police, given her history of provocation. But it does attract the attention of a San Antonio newspaper reporter (played by Adam Scott), who ultimately connects the dots to David Waters, a convicted felon and disgruntled former employee of O’Hair’s who knew about a secret American Atheists offshore account in New Zealand.

Although her colorful life would reach a tragic, decidedly pulpy end, Leo plays it to the absolute hilt, whether she’s chatting with Johnny Carson or sparring on Donahue with preacher Bob Harrington, the “Chaplain of Bourbon Street” (played by Peter Fonda).

Unfortunately, the other characters and the vehicle that supports her turn out to be less satisfyingly dimensional; despite the playful period art direction, there’s a naggingly superficial, episodic feel to those time and mood shifts that ultimately prevents audiences from showing The Most Hated Woman in America more love.

Production companies: Brownstone Prods., Untitled Entertainment
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Melissa Leo, Josh Lucas, Michael Chernus, Rory Cochrane, Sally Kirkland, Adam Scott, Juno Temple, Peter Fonda
Director: Tommy O’Haver
Screenwriters: Tommy O’Haver, Irene Turner
Producers: Elizabeth Banks, Max Handelman, Laura Rister
Executive producers: Ian Bricke, Tommy O’Haver
Director of photography: Armando Salas
Production designer: David L. Snyder
Costume designer: Molly O’Haver Moore
Editor: Michael X. Flores
Music: Alan Lazar
Casting directors: Kerry Barden, Paul Schnee
Venue: South by Southwest (Narrative Spotlight)

92 minutes

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