There are plenty of stories about domestic housewives who grow tired of their oppressive routines, but none quite like Marianna Palka’s vicious feminist satire “Bitch,” in which the writer-director-star plays a woman who takes on the identity of a wild dog. It’s a blunt metaphor, but Palka transforms an absurd premise into a chilling look at the destruction of the nuclear family with a vivid, snarling vision driven by the propulsive energy of its biting critique.
Inspired by a real-life case study documented by psychologist R.D. Lang, “Bitch” follows the plight of afflicted matriarch Jill (Palka) and her clueless husband Bill (Palka regular Jason Ritter). The usually sweet-natured Ritter boldly plays against type, initially coming across as an “American Psycho”-like creep who sleeps with his secretary and buries himself in the office, leaving the care of his three young children to his clearly unstable wife. When she snaps, he’s forced to reconsider his ways, although the deranged events around him suggest he may have missed his window to set things right.
By the first scene Jill’s world is falling apart, attempting a horrific suicide by dangling from her chandelier by a belt. The violent moment plays out with operatic intensity, and while she doesn’t succeed, she snaps. Bill has no idea about the mania he’s about to confront the next morning, as Jill ushers the kids out the door and mutters under breath, “I’m terrified I’m gonna do something.” A mysterious dog prowls the front yard and locks eyes with her, but Bill’s lost in his own world. Then she vanishes, and there’s just enough time for him to throw a fit about her decision to abandon them when she resurfaces in the basement — nude and growling on all fours, smeared in feces and eyes filled with rage. While Jill howls away, Bill struggles to maintain control of a situation far beyond control.
With its jittery formalism against the backdrop of a nightmarish suburban setting, Palka recalls Michael Haneke, but with an eye for surreal black comedy that suggests the anything-goes weirdness of Quentin Dupieux (“Rubber,” “Wrong”). Palka’s fourth feature is lightyears ahead of her last effort, the more conventional romantic drama “Good Dick,” and even when “Bitch” stumbles through some of its stranger moments it remains an uncompromising vision. The wacky drama is aided in large part by Morgan z Whirledge’s chaotic score, which erupts with discordant melodies that play off a layered sound mix rich with competing cues, overlapping dialogue, and ever-present barking that convey the sheer chaos of a stable world facing its reckoning.
Though Palka uses Jill’s plight as its key animating device, “Bitch” works best when it focuses on Bill’s ongoing shock at the sudden demand for his responsibility, as he fights through the task of delivering his kids to school and suddenly loses traction in the workplace. A fierce portrait of unwieldy comeuppance, it’s both hilarious and terrifying to watch Bill take in the strange events around him. One brilliant sequence finds him dashing in and out of his kid’s school, collapsing onto the ground and throwing tantrums as everything he took for granted dissolves beneath him.
Unfortunately, once the full nature of Jill’s canine ailment comes into play, the movie comes up short of making it credible. While Palka’s performance stands out for its ambition, her jolting animal movements are often shot in such extreme, blurry closeups that it’s hard to absorb the extent of her lunacy. Meanwhile, the kids run crazy, the doctors come and go, and Bill fights with his judgmental sister-in-law (Jaime King) to make the case that he knows what to do. Palka doesn’t quite find a satisfying way to push the scenario forward, but it remains so baffling and mysterious that Bill’s attempts to find the logic in his decaying stability retains a thrilling momentum.
Even as the high-concept premise wears thin, Palka manages to generate an unexpected degree of sympathy for the floundering couple, and the wordless finale allows for a complete transformation that extends beyond Jill’s bizarre condition. By its end, “Bitch” focuses as much on what it means to wake up to the frustrations of an American dream coming to pieces as it is a fierce indictment of them.
“Bitch” premiered in the midnight section at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.