While the direct release of blockbusters to streaming services has gained controversial attention of late, lost in the shuffle are films that might have expected modest yet successful box-office runs. Consider I’m Your Woman, which had only a limited theatrical release before being recently released on Amazon. It is a slow-burning thriller that is neither flashy nor given to art-house pretensions but leaves one thinking about the film for days afterward.
I’m Your Woman is a crime drama set in a 1970-ish milieu, featuring Rachel Brosnahan (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) as Jean, shown in opening scenes as a stereotypical lower-middle class suburban housewife. One knows that this won’t be the usual ride when it becomes clear that Jean neither hates her life nor basks in its comfort.
Jean suspects that her husband Eddie (Bill Heck) is engaged in illegal activity since he keeps his business life walled off from her. This is illustrated by a scene where Eddie closes doors so the men can talk, giving a self-consciously low-brow nod to the famous closing scene of The Godfather. Jean is thrust into the middle of that world, however, when she and her baby are pulled out of their beds by one of her husband’s associates, sending her on the run with a stranger (Cal, played to perfection by Arinzé Kene). Jean finds herself in a succession of hideouts as suspense builds, nameless thugs continue to close in, and uncertainty rises about who is friend or foe.
Throughout, the director’s avoidance of heavy-handedness is highly effective. Late in the film, when Jean learns what Eddie has actually been doing for a living, the revelatory scene could have been milked for all it’s worth, complete with a grindingly ominous musical score. It instead passes matter-of-factly, and the emotional highlights of the movie are priceless moments like a quiet diner scene in which Jean describes to Cal the silly song she uses to make her baby laugh.
Particularly refreshing in I’m Your Woman is the way Brosnahan captures the ambivalent approach to physical violence that many women have. Early in the film, she is strong in a passive sort of way, but when she later understands she will need to learn to use a gun to protect herself and her child, she puts in the work. She closes her eyes, flinches, and misses badly on her first shot, then improves — but only somewhat, at least not until the moment it counts. Again, given current motifs running through contemporary films of willowy women routinely kick-boxing men as though they were pillows, this is an honest take on what estrogen and testosterone balances bring to the table, right down to Jean forgetting what pocket of her fur coat the revolver is in — exactly what one would expect from someone unaccustomed to packing heat.
Other reviewers have read much into the racial elements of this film’s story, but director Julia Hart handles them with subtlety. In one scene while Jean and Cal are on the run, they fall asleep at the side of the road and are accosted by a white policeman who questions Jean on whether she is OK (i.e., whether she is safe with the black man in the car with her). Cal understands the danger of the situation and moves with tense awareness until Jean defuses the situation with artless lies. One can read modern-day “white privilege” into this scene. But such interpretations don’t give enough credit to Hart, who crafts it cleanly, capturing the real danger of being a black man being found alone in a remote location with a white woman in 1970 without overdoing the pathos. And when Jean retreats to rural seclusion with Cal’s family, they are all just human beings trying to survive. Racial barriers falling away in the context of fear and love is a story as old as the human race.
The mustard and pink–infused visual palette places the film squarely in its time, the film locations in and around Pittsburgh are well-chosen, and the musical score is pitch-perfect, using a pair of Aretha Franklin numbers to create mountains and well-placed periods of silence for the long, tension-building valleys. Hart could have repeatedly swatted us with false emotion from a clichéd period soundtrack but instead uses music as a tasteful accent that reinforces drama already created by dialogue and action.
Brosnahan is magnificent throughout. Hollywood may not make as many films like this as they used to, but one hopes to be seeing more of her if they do.