I'm Your Woman movie review: Rachel Brosnahan is Marvelous Mrs. Mobster in Julia Hart's crime thriller
Rachel Brosnahan portrays a loneliness so quiet and a paranoia so relentless it haunts the film like atmosphere.
castRachel Brosnahan, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Arinzé Kene, James Mcmenamin, Marceline Hugot, Frankie Faison, Bill Heck, Da'mauri Parks, Jameson Charles, Justin Charles, Barrett Shaffer, Jarrod Digiorgi, Lynda Marnoni
Gender roles in gangster movies are as sacrosanct as the omertà. For all intents and purposes to say the least. Traditionally, the men are out collecting protection money, doing shady deals in nightclubs, and torturing a suspected rat who broke their vaguely defined but inviolable code of honour. Meanwhile, the women they leave behind take care of the household. They are forced to operate like props in the background, slowly becoming one with the wallpaper. The agency they exercise is mostly limited to being a nagging conscience, like Diane Keaton in The Godfather. Even then, they have little to no impact on the men's decisions or the narrative itself.
Indeed, women are not all long-suffering wives. Some embrace the lifestyle gangsterism affords, like Lorraine Bracco does in Goodfellas. On rare occasion, they even encourage their husband and participate, like Jessica Chastain in A Most Violent Year. Julia Hart takes a whole different approach in I'm Your Woman. The silent consort, usually a passenger, is forced to take the driver's seat after her husband's crimes leave her defenceless. On the run with a baby in tow, she must confront some practical problems: feeding the baby, ensuring its crying doesn't attract the attention of the whole neighbourhood, keeping your sanity while moving from safe house to safe house, etc. These problems would all have been conveniently overlooked in a male-centric thriller. By challenging the variables taken for granted in the gangster genre, Hart rewrites the story to recognise the truth of the female experience.
Rachel Brosnahan plays Jean, a lonely housewife who has resigned herself to a life of bourgeois ennui in 1970s suburbia. She has suffered in silence through multiple miscarriages, and recovering from the emotional fallout has not been easy. So when her husband Eddie shows up with a baby in his arms, she doesn't press him too much with questions. She's used to getting surprise gifts of uncertain origin from her husband, who's a career thief with mob connections. Hart deliberately keeps these connections vague and withholds information to drive the mystery. Till the final quarter of the film, Jean is pretty much operating on as much information as we are.
When Eddie's crimes catch up with him and he suddenly disappears, Jean and baby Harry too become targets overnight. Or so she is informed by her husband's associate Cal, a man she had never seen or heard of till she gets in his car. Arinzé Kene plays Cal with alternating warmth and coldness, joining her in a duet version of Aretha Franklin’s ‘A Natural Woman’ one moment, before reverting to stoic silence the next. Call it a professional necessity. Cal escorts Jean and baby Harry from safe house to safe house, while evading the thugs after them. When the need to act trumps the time to think, there's bound to be the occasional slip into implausibility. The film will be a lot more rewarding experience if you choose to excuse them.
Similar to the protagonist of Hart's 2018 film Fast Color, Jean must learn to adapt to a life on the run. Only, she isn't a superhero. Imagine the Marvelous Mrs Maisel is placed in a Martin Scorsese sandbox, and asked to deal with it. At least, Midge is vocal and self-sufficient. Jean is a silent, passive figure whose sheltered life has quashed every instinct for survival. Hell, she can't even crack an egg, which becomes a running gag. She is like a deer caught in the headlights. Hart doesn't loudly signal the feminist message of her story, because she wants us to accept Jean as an everywoman.
One of the safehouses Jean goes to happens to be Cal's childhood home, where she meets his wife Teri (Marsha Stephanie Blake), their son Paul (De'Mauri Parks), and grandpa Art (Frankie Faison). They instantly bond over the circumstances they find themselves in. Teri, who confesses she has done this before, teaches Jean that staying in the passenger's seat isn't an option in a world run by violent men. So, rather than yield to that crippling sense of helplessness, it is better to take charge. Because they're both mothers trying to protect their families. Pushed into a corner, they must be willing to do whatever it takes to survive, and hope to break the cycle of violence.
Hart builds a refreshing woman-centric perspective without foregoing the familiar language of '70s gangster dramas (indulging in headshots and car chases that come with the terrain) and the visual grammar of neo-noir (reproducing the contrast and cynicism to the point of pastiche).
It is a perspective strengthened by a performance of controlled intensity from Brosnahan, who plays Jean with a loneliness so quiet and a paranoia so relentless it haunts the film like atmosphere.
Beyond aesthetic immersion, the racial bigotry also plays a part in transporting us to the '70s. While on the run, Cal is questioned by a policeman who assumes the only reason a white woman is being driven by a black man must be coercion. The intersection of race and gender isn't entirely disregarded. It is narrowly represented in a short conversation, where Teri reminds Jean exactly who has it “worse.”
The final act puts the two women in the centre of the action. Once her survival instincts kick in, we see a different Jean, one who stops reacting and starts acting as self-pity makes way for self-confidence. Although the bloody climax may not be as beguiling as the loneliness and anxiety that permeates the story, Hart puts considerable premium on its build-up that it pays dividends.
I'm Your Woman is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
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