The most openly expressive character in the on-the-lam drama I’m Your Woman is a baby. That makes sense; he’s the only one who hasn’t a clue what a mess of danger is closing in around him. The grown-ups, on the other hand, all seem to be holding their breath, clenching their jaws, looking over their shoulders. This is especially the case for the boy’s mother, Jean, played by Rachel Brosnahan with a caught-in-the-existential-headlights stillness that’s the diametric opposite of her vivid, hyper-verbal Mrs. Maisel.
Director Julia Hart’s concern with female protagonists in inhospitable worlds takes a turn, in her fourth and strongest feature, into stripped-down genre territory. Crossing crime-thriller nuts and bolts with a sensitive character study, she and producer Jordan Horowitz (La La Land), her screenwriting partner and husband, trace a hard-won awakening for Jean. Forced to hit the road, baby in tow, after her hubby’s criminal maneuvers put his rivals on her trail, Jean is torn out of her cocoon — a state of suspension and denial that, in keeping with the 1970s setting, you might call suburban ennui.
Hers is a story of someone shocked back into life, and, fittingly, it unfolds against an autumnal chill and a period-precise palette dominated by beiges, tans and browns. As with Hart’s Fast Color, there’s a sense of movie-artifice joy in the pops of stylized visuals. And as with that film, dramatic momentum is an iffier proposition.
I’m Your Woman, which opens in theaters Dec. 4, a week before its global streaming launch, spins around an intriguing premise and compelling cast. With its stretches of little or no dialogue, the film gives Brosnahan’s fans a chance to see her in a far more internalized, watchful mode than on her Amazon series, and there isn’t a performance here that hits a wrong note. Yet the drama works only in fits and starts. The vague danger that shapes it, and the narrative’s underlying emotional intricacies, are too often explained rather than felt.
A pampered possessor of negligible skills, Jean begins her odyssey with none of the tough resourcefulness of Gloria, Gena Rowlands’ title character in the 1980 Cassavetes movie, also a tale of a woman and child on the run from vengeful mobsters. Even domestic basics elude her: In a metaphor that’s pushed way past the boiling point, we repeatedly witness her culinary ineptitude with eggs. As Jean says at a crucial point along her getaway trajectory, “I’ve never been on my own.”
But even with Eddie in hiding, location unknown, Jean doesn’t go it alone: Her lessons in survival arrive courtesy of a Black family with reluctant ties to her AWOL spouse. This is the most compelling angle of the feature, the way it thrusts a sheltered white woman into the protective grace of people she’d otherwise never encounter — people who, by necessity, have made endurance an art form.
In his ultra-brief screen time, Bill Heck (Locke & Key) makes an impression as Jean’s husband, Eddie. He’s the kind of forcefully cheerful guy who’s unperturbed by her botched eggs, and who commands a cadre of loyal followers even after he sets a whole world of revenge in motion. After his (offscreen) activities force him underground and make targets of his wife and son, his minions swing into action. Jean and Harry are tossed into the night with a bag of cash and a driver, the closemouthed Cal (Arinzé Kene), who used to work with Eddie and takes charge of Jean’s escape with quiet efficiency. Not least among his talents is his calming effect on Harry.
That’s critical know-how because Jean is in a state of discombobulation over the son she’s still getting to know. It’s not merely that Harry is only a few months old, but that he entered her life as unexpectedly as Cal has. Like the items of froufrou loungewear that Eddie would bring home with their price tags still attached, the baby is one of his surprise gifts.
The scene in which he presents this living offering to his wife, with the assurance that “it’s all worked out,” might trigger a viewer’s Raising Arizona expectations (or fears). But Hart handles the encounter with a matter-of-fact appreciation of its absurdity, smartly underplaying its momentousness and emphasizing Jean’s numb, muffled astonishment. (In an indication of how circumscribed and lonely her life is, there’s no concern about friends or neighbors who might take notice of her sudden parenthood.)
The helmer doesn’t sentimentalize Harry, turn him into a MacGuffin or exploit his vulnerability to danger. (Watching Jean carting him around, your heart won’t skip a beat the way it might have when Llewyn Davis schlepped a cat onto the subway.) He’s played by a trio of kiddos with character-actor faces (Jameson and Justin Charles, Barrett Shaffer), and Hart captures them reacting to their surroundings and exchanging glances of mutual discovery with Brosnahan, lovely jolts of unforced feeling.
By contrast, the exchanges among the adult characters can be exceedingly measured, a reflection of their respective wariness. Kene, a star of the British stage and TV, suggests depths of struggle, triumph and anxiety beneath Cal’s polite, impassive surface. He waits for the right moment to pull away the blinders and counter her view of Eddie as a harmless thief: “He’s a killer, Jean.”
From a city row house (the Pittsburgh area, unnamed, provides a strong sense of place) to a remote cabin in the neighboring countryside, Jean goes where Cal leads her. Well before his wife Teri (Marsha Stephanie Blake), son (Da’Mauri Parks) and father (Frankie Faison) arrive to hole up with her in the sticks, there’s no doubt that Cal is committed to keeping Jean safe. His motivation is something of a burning question, though — and one that will be answered, eventually, by his wife. Blake (When They See Us) lends her character a regal, commanding ferocity that could not be more different from Jean’s pallid passivity. And yet the two women, it turns out, have something intensely personal in common.
In the performances and a few deft screenplay choices, the story’s racial dimension is addressed with potent nuance. There are the thinly veiled suspicions of a highway cop who finds a white woman and a black man together in a car. There’s the practiced caution with which Cal’s father, teaching Jean to shoot, announces, “I’m about to take out a gun.” There’s the communal importance of places of refuge, whether on a private piece of land or in a Black-owned-and-operated hotel. And there’s the certainty with which Teri tells a complaining Jean: “Nothing’s worse for you.” In an affecting and transcendent touch, Hart brings the outside world further into her fiction with the use, at key plot points, of two Aretha Franklin tracks, her rousing versions of Carole King’s “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman” and The Band’s “The Weight.”
The ingredients are rich. And yet the action tends to advance mechanically. Case in point: The impressive contributions of designers Gae Buckley and Natalie O’Brien, DP Bryce Fortner and composer Aska Matsumiya crescendo in a set piece at a disco owned by a nasty kingpin (James McMenamin, of Orange Is the New Black). The sequence looks and sounds great, yet even after the need to visit the club is spelled out in dialogue, it doesn’t quite hold water.
During Jean’s row-house stopover, the intrusive friendliness of a neighbor (a superbly itchy turn from The Leftovers‘ Marceline Hugot) provides the story’s most intense stretch of suspense. Otherwise the movie is most involving at its least plot-driven, when the genre edges peel away — as in the awkward reassurances a distraught Jean receives from a stranger (Lynda Marnoni) in a laundromat. The first of two diner scenes between Jean and Cal moves rewardingly into an extemporaneous mood of levity as well as confession. Such moments make you wish that Hart had pushed deeper into the off-center details, setting off more sparks of friction and delight.
As a woman who’s ripped out of her big house and empty routines, Brosnahan delivers a contained, unshowy performance. Jean is a work-in-progress, emergency-style. When we first see her, in a gauzy purple number, pale and smoking, she seems almost weightless. The performance brings her slowly into focus, planting her feet in a world she’d never imagined. In the final moments, after the powerful image of a family reunion, we know how far she’s come, that she’s releasing her grip on a brittle notion of happily-ever-after and saying yes to joy. In the lingo of the day, that’s a long way, baby — even if in this telling we know what’s been gained more than we feel it.
Venue: AFI Fest (Special Presentations)
Distributor: Amazon Studios Production companies: Original Headquarters and Scrap Paper Pictures in association with Big Indie Pictures
Cast: Rachel Brosnahan, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Arinzé Kene, James McMenamin, Marceline Hugot, Frankie Faison, Bill Heck, Da’Mauri Parks, Jameson Charles, Justin Charles, Barrett Shaffer, Jarrod DiGiorgi, Lynda Marnoni
Director: Julia Hart
Screenwriters: Julia Hart, Jordan Horowitz
Producers: Jordan Horowitz, Rachel Brosnahan
Executive producers: Bart Lipton
Director of photography: Bryce Fortner
Production designer: Gae Buckley
Costume designer: Natalie O’Brien
Editors: Tracey Wadmore-Smith, Shayar Bhansali
Music: Aska Matsumiya
Casting directors: Candice Alustiza-Lee, Karlee Fomalont