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New-relationship anxiety escalates to dark suspicion — or is it unhinged paranoia? — in Ingrid Jungermann’s nimble horror-tinged comedy Women Who Kill. As in her terrifically droll web series F to 7th (now in development at Showtime) and The Slope (tagline: “Superficial, homophobic lesbians”), the setting is creative-class Brooklyn. There are suggestions of vintage Woody Allen in the movie’s autumnal upscale New York, and the goofy sleuthing of his Manhattan Murder Mystery is an obvious inspiration for a story involving the amateur detective work of former lovers.
But writer-director-actor Jungermann has more on her mind than high jinks in her dark and wryly parodic feature debut, which nabbed screenplay honors at Tribeca and the recently wrapped Outfest. Beneath the humorous (seldom bloody) jabs, she exposes the equation of love with danger that can fuel a fear of commitment. A savvy distributor would give this smart, polished picture the art-house exposure it merits.
With her deadpan delivery and sharp comic timing, Jungermann holds the story’s nervous center as Morgan, who still shares a Park Slope apartment with her ex, Jean (Ann Carr). Facing each other across their laptops, they channel their fascination with female serial killers into an apparently popular podcast, pondering murderers’ body counts, methods and hotness quotients. The opening scene finds Jean and Morgan following GPS directions onto Rolling Correctional Facility Road to interview a major “get” for their true-crime show, the convicted killer Lila, aka the Bad Professor, a supercilious snob brought to deliciously caustic life by Annette O’Toole.
On some level Morgan and Jean are still working out their failed romantic bond, though they refuse to acknowledge it and can’t understand why their friends, particularly the voluble Alex (a very good Shannon O’Neill), insist that they belong together. With a clear-eyed perspective on peer-group dynamics, Jungermann questions whether concerns over friends’ love lives are just a form of self-interest, a need to keep everyone in the club and all the pieces in their comforting, familiar places.
Morgan shakes up her circle of lesbian friends and frenemies when she gets serious with Simone, who comes on strong in intensely mysterious, new-girl-in-town fashion. Played by Sheila Vand, who was the title vampire in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Simone is a wide-eyed femme fatale complete with a locked box, contents unknown, on conspicuous display in her eerily atmospheric apartment. Putting her true-crime instincts, and maybe her jealousy, into high gear, Jean turns up troubling information about her successor. The seeds of doubt take root in active imaginations, and before long, just as on their show, Morgan and Jean are in full normcore thrall to the perilous possibilities.
In nighttime interiors as well as Morgan’s black-and-white nightmares, the crisp widescreen camerawork by Rob Leitzell plays up shadows and light to double-edged effect. The horror-trope winks register, but so do the chills, heightened by Ivan Howard’s suspense score and a churning, ominous soundscape.
The movie’s shifts in tone and focus can occasionally be distracting, but through it all Jungermann maintains a suitably dark undercurrent with an impressively light touch, evident in such peripheral details as the bouquets and “ghost bikes” — memorials to dead pedestrians and cyclists — that Morgan passes on the streets.
Jungermann has said that she’s “interested in minutiae,” and that attention to the intricacies of communication pays off in well-observed tangos of passive aggression and the boundless convolutions of Morgan and Jean’s arguments. With its low-key absurdity, the screenplay parses the rules and regulations of gentrified society with keen insight, whether they’re the printed and laminated rules for a food co-op (Deborah Rush and Terence Nance play the rule-makers) or the unwritten ones of lesbian relationships.
One of the film’s strongest sequences explores the bizarre embrace of straight-world wedding traditions by Alex and her ultra-femme fiancée (Grace Rex). At the latter’s sedate bridal shower, humorless 12-step survivors lay down the law on sex toys. And at Alex’s obnoxiously bro-ish strip-club bachelor party, Morgan escapes the idiocy to sit alone at the bar. Across from her is another solitary soul, an older woman whose eyes have lost their light, a specter of things Morgan doesn’t yet know she fears.
Production company: Parts and Labor
Cast: Ingrid Jungermann, Ann Carr, Sheila Vand, Shannon O’Neill, Grace Rex, Annette O’Toole, Deborah Rush, Terence Nance, Rodrigo Lopresti, Tami Sagher
Director-screenwriter: Ingrid Jungermann
Producer: Alex Scharfman
Executive producers: Cliff Chenfeld, Craig Balsam, Jim Rosenthal, Rick Milenthal, Victor Zaraya, Stacie Passon, Jay Van Hoy, Lars Knudsen
Director of photography: Rob Leitzell
Production designer: Olga Miasnikova
Costume designer: Elizabeth Warn
Editor: Ron Dulin
Composer: Ivan Howard
Casting: Lois J. Drabkin
Not rated, 91 minutes
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