New York City has played host to an insular genre of metropolitan horror-comedies, with a spate of recent examples all reflecting the plight of modern urbanites: Sebastian Silva’s “Nasty Baby,” Onur Tuke’s “Summer of Blood,” and the under-appreciated “Murder Party” all poke fun at a certain macabre desperation unique to the Big Apple. Into that category goes Ingrid Jungermann’s whip-smart satire “Women Who Kill,” which offers a wry snapshot of self-involved New York lesbians that’s both enjoyably smarmy and unsettling in equal doses.
A giant step up from “The Slope” and “F to the 7th,” the popular web series Jungermann created prior to this feature-length debut, “Women Who Kill” follows straight-faced podcasters Morgan (Jungermann) and Jean (Ann Carr), a former couple whose popular digital show finds them profiling the eponymous murderers.
The film walks a narrow line between realism and metaphor. The podcast maintains a high-concept premise with the kind of specificity that fits today’s narrow-casting media landscape, but it’s also a clever metaphor for the overly serious, moody disposition that finds these characters constantly on the verge of another feud. Even as it’s sometimes tonally uneven, the movie has a remarkable unpredictability.
While no longer a couple, Morgan and Jean still spend much of their time together, a tendency they attempt to rectify by dating around. As the more collected member of the trio, Jean mostly stands by the sidelines of the story, while Morgan’s anxieties remain at its center. At her local food co-op, she encounters seductive young gothic Brooklynite Simone (Sheila Vand, the wide-eyed vampire menace of “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” also expertly chilling here) and quickly develops a blinding affair that baffles Morgan’s ex. Just as her “Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” character harbored a secret that endangered her romance, Simone seems to be hiding something — unless, of course, those suspicions have more to do with the mindsets of the conspiratorial older women themselves.
Largely shot on Brooklyn street corners and crammed apartments, “Women Who Kill” uses the contained setting to foreground its characters’ anxious lives. With a deadpan style of the Jim Jarmusch variety, the movie shuffles between eerie noir tropes and pitch-black inner city humor. Yet even as the particular atmosphere breaks no new ground, the narrative is quietly progressive for its complete absence of central male characters.
Instead, it relies on a terrific cast of neurotically-charged actresses, although the writer-director-star rules them all: Jungermann’s beady-eyed expression perfectly embodies the paranoia percolating throughout her world. The tagline for “The Slope” — “superficial, homophobic lesbians” — applies just as well here. It’s a contradictory assessment that speaks to the movie’s ironic perspective on a marginalized subculture oozing with attitude.
Jungermann’s savage wit knows no bounds. These days, says a convinced murderer interviewed for the podcast, “you can’t tell a dyke from a debutante.” Offering a fresh window into that world, Jungermann has effectively made the best lesbian horror-comedy ever. (Lucky McGee’s “May” and “All Cheerleaders Must Die!” have their place, but “Women Who Kill” offers a more studied view of its subculture.)
With few guffaw-worthy moments, there are times when “Women Who Kill” is too muted for its own good. Its labyrinthine investigative plot at times feels repetitive. Jungermann adopts a radically different tone from the goofy cadences of her series, where each episode crackled with one-liners stuffed into a handful of minutes. “Women Who Kill” trades that approach for pensiveness, which at times limits the story’s intrigue.
Yet much of the movie uses such restraint to hint at hilarious possibilities lurking just beneath the surface. The main source of suspense emanates from a Park Slope co-op wherein events that appear scary are actually not that big of a deal. Or…are they? The prevarication never ends. “Women Who Kill” invites viewers into Morgan’s psychologically unstable perspective, then jolts back to reality. The biggest challenges she faces isn’t some greater threat from the outside world, but the mental walls she’s built that keep her away from it.
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