Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2020 AFI FEST Film Festival. Amazon Studios will release it in select theaters on Friday, December 4, with a streaming premiere to follow on Amazon Prime Video on Friday, December 11.
You’ll be halfway through “I’m Your Woman” before its premise is clear, but the mystery is as gripping as its payoff. Director Julia Hart’s fourth feature pairs an engrossing turn from Rachel Brosnahan with a tense ‘70s-set script constructed with jigsaw precision. The full picture may amount to a contrived gangster story, but Hart (who scripted with her partner Jordan Horowitz) approaches that formula from the inside out. By the time you realize the kind of movie you’re watching, it’s already a few steps ahead.
“I’m Your Woman” owes much to Brosnahan’s evolving performance as she goes from terrified housewife to trenchant survivalist over the course movie, and the movie consolidates the strengths of Hart’s previous work. Like her breakout Civil War script “The Keeping Room,” it finds women trapped in a man’s world, and forced to resort to violence as a means of escape. And like the lo-fi superhero drama “Fast Color,” its heroine goes on the lam before she truly understands what’s chasing her, and why she’s better off confronting it head on. A slow-burn crime saga doused in intrigue, “I’m Your Woman” compensates for a creaky first act with the payoff that follows.
The opening minutes of “I’m Your Woman” suggest a very different experience — an eerie melodrama with stirrings of “Rosemary’s Baby” more than the feminist genre effort to come. When Eddie (Bill Heck) suddenly shows up at his palatial home with a baby and hands it to his wife Jean (Brosnahan), she accepts it without question. With no context for the exchange, the movie hovers in the uncertainty of their dynamic and later doubles back to explain it.
For now, it’s enough to set the gears moving: When Eddie — whose shady career remains a secret to his wife — goes missing, a frantic gunslinger named Cal (Arinzé Kene) shows up to explain why she and her adopted infant must go on the lam. She does, careening through a series of safe houses and evading various murderous goons intent on using her to track down her husband.
By now, it should be clear that “I’m Your Woman” has much less to do with Eddie than his wife, and the unknown details of his life. Most of the villains in “I’m Your Woman” are abstract caricatures, Tarantinoesque goons who serve little purpose beyond ratcheting the danger quotient at key moments, but they’re momentary distractions in a movie rooted in the peculiar nature of Jean’s identity crisis.
While hinting at a much bigger world, “I’m Your Woman” unfolds in fragments of small exchanges and Brosnahan anchors every scene. At first, the movie seems headed for a “True Romance” type of hybrid: As Jean bonds with Cal at a late-night diner, it seems as if her hired protector might replace the man who left her behind.
Courtesy Amazon Studios
“I’m Your Woman” has more sophisticated intentions. Jean finds herself huddling in the woods alongside Cal’s family, including his no-bullshit wife Teri (Marsha Stephanie Blake), whose ties to Jean’s husband bring additional clarity to her conundrum. Eventually, “I’m Your Woman” reveals itself as a clever refashioning of lost souls chasing the American dream, trapped by the paranoia of losing it all. Jean only wants a peaceful life, but “I’m Your Woman” finds her realizing that such lofty goals require more than waiting for them to be fulfilled.
The movie morphs from suburban suspense to woodsy survivalism, lacing it together with a slick atmosphere of dread. (The time period is irrelevant, aside from the filmmaking influences that call to mind “The Parallax View” and other ’70s-era thrillers.) Hart and cinematographer Bryce Fortner excel in blending noir-like imagery with sudden bursts of frantic action, from a closeup that lingers in a phone booth in the midst of a shootout to the neon-hued image of capsized cars on an abandoned street. Aska Matsumiya’s subtle piano score oscillates between ominous and searching (with echoes of David Shire’s “The Conversation” compositions), pointing toward an enigma that requires the story’s full arc to settle in.
There’s a lot of style in “I’m Your Woman,” and the substance largely backs it up. Just when Jean’s situation starts to grow repetitive, new information complicates her situation and Brosnahan — a world apart from the ebullient entertainer of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” — exhibits a mounting confidence that becomes the real star of the show. “I didn’t know I could lie like that,” she says at a pivotal moment, and it’s a laugh line that comes equipped with hope.
For Hart, whose most recent credit was the Disney+ YA effort “Stargirl,” the movie advances the potential of “Fast Color” to merge escapism with deeper, socially relevant themesl. Jean’s trajectory takes on a modern-day resonance as she confronts the nature of an existence previously defined by people who try to shut her out. There’s an empowering quality to watching her move beyond that and a fundamental satisfaction in how the movie utilizes reliable elements to get the job done. It’s almost too easy to recall the Jean-Luc Godard quote that every movie needs a girl and gun, but “I’m Your Woman” takes that truism and it endows it with fresh purpose.
“I’m Your Woman” premiered as the opening night selection of the 2020 AFI FEST.
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