By Bears Fonte
I’m an avid midnighter – I have seen every midnight film that Sundance has programmed for the last five years. They tend to take a lot more chances than the rest of the festival program and often offer new, distinct voices to be discovered. And I usually give first time writer/directors a bit of leeway, because it’s an awful lot to take on. That being said, Marianna Palka’s BITCH can best be described as a bold discussion piece, one that maybe would have been better served with Palka working a little longer on the script before diving in to direct and star in it.
Set in the suburbs, Palka plays Jill, an overworked, underappreciated cliché of a wife whose high-power businessman husband (Jason Ritter) is cheating on her. After a failed suicide attempt, Jill begins to check out on life, eventually hiding in the cellar and barking and biting like a dog (and crawling around on all fours). It’s the kind of premise that makes you say ‘I have to see this movie’ but also, ‘how can they possibly pull that off?’ Palka is actually quite good in the film, and her canine transformation is terrifying – it’s like stumbling into a method actor studio’s free play ‘what kind of animal are you’ exercise gone into chaos. And Jason Ritter is, as always, charming and full of depth as he gradually takes on responsibility for the family and trying to be available for Jill, even in this new form.
But it all comes down to the fact that this is a movie about a woman who wants to be a dog, be treated like a dog and then only slowly heals by people acknowledging her as a dog. The theme of the movie is indecipherable – and I have to say, not even vaguely, offensive. If a man had made this movie, it would be eviscerated. But yet a woman made it (and wrote it and starred in it) so I have to ask, what was she trying to say? And if it is about Jill’s understanding of her identity, or her retaking her identity, why does she disappear for basically the final third of the film and we are treated to extended montages of Jason Ritter reading to the kids and buying ice cream.
To me the film fails because at its core, it is just an exercise in shock tactics. The filmmaker grabbed on to a provocative premise and thought that would be enough to carry the film. But so little of the film is spent on Jill and instead we watch scene after scene of Ritter’s Bill getting his comeuppance, and sitcom-esque scenes of forgetting school lunches and having temper tantrums. The kids never quite know how to handle their mom, at one point in time even giggling like it’s a joke. They seem to be in an entirely different movie. The tone of this film is all over the place because the filmmaker doesn’t seem to know how to tell a story to get to the core of what she wanted to say. Or maybe she just has nothing to say and it’s all about the tactics of shock with the premise. Adding to that argument is the oppressive sound design of yelling and dogs barking and general household noise that gave me a splitting headache 20 minutes into the film.
Past the premise and the well-executed dog embodiment by Palka, there is not much to this film. I can’t help but thinking the script was another three re-writes away from being about something, or another director would have solved the tone problems and put together an edit of the film that told a cohesive story. This is unfortunately the case of a first-time writer/director taking on more than they should have and putting together an unforgettable but ultimately unrealized film.
BITCH had its world premiere at Sundance Film Festival 2017.