Photo: ‘I’m Your Woman’/Amazon Studios
The tough-guy crime story is one of the most popular ones to be told in movies and TV. But at the same time, the sub-genre tends to be very male-centered in perspective: movies like The Godfather, Scarface, Goodfellas, Heat, and The Irishman come to mind. Even when there is a compelling female presence, for the most part, these stories are still shown from a male point of view.
There have been exceptions over the past couple of years, of reframing crime movies from a woman’s perspective. And in terms of quality, they’ve ranged from great (Hustlers, Widows) to decent (Ocean’s 8) to underwhelming (The Kitchen). The latest addition to the canon is I’m Your Woman from writer-director Julia Hart. While not the thrill ride one would expect based on the trailer, it’s still a solid and well-made character drama bolstered by a strong lead performance from Rachel Brosnahan.
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The Story — You’re On Your Own Now
Taking place in the 1970s somewhere in the Northeast, the movie follows bored housewife Jean (Brosnahan, who also co-produced) who’s married to professional thief Eddie (Bill Heck). She knows he’s a career criminal, but he keeps her in the dark as to his dealings and activities; ignorance is bliss. Eager for years to start a family, Eddie surprises her one day by bringing home a baby boy and telling her that he’s now theirs. Though taken aback she accepts this and starts mothering the child, who she names Harry.
But things take a turn one night when gangsters barge into her home and warn Jean that Eddie has gone missing and that she’s now in danger. With a bag full of money, Jean and the baby are paired with Cal (Arinzé Kene), one of Eddie’s associates tasked with protecting her, and the three go on the run. As Jean bounces from one safe house to another, she continues to care for Harry and bonds with Cal and his family—his wife Teri (Marsha Stephanie Blake), son Paul (De’Mauri Parks), and father Art (Frankie Faison). But as she also learns more of Eddie’s criminal dealings, she realizes that she’ll have to take action to ensure her and her child’s safety.
‘70s Style, and a Winning Actress in the Center of it All
The trailer might have you think that we’re in for a tense thriller, but this is actually a character drama. Make no mistake: this is very much a slow-burn experience reminiscent of Seventies films, fitting the era it’s set in. Less patient viewers might find the quiet domestic scenes with Jean boring, though others might find it compelling; things do pick up in the second half once Jean is joined by Cal’s family. Hart and Horowitz also make the choice to tell the story from Jean’s limited point of view—we only know what she knows and sees what she sees. While the plot does build to revelations and pivotal moments, others are left open for interpretation.
What Hart does very well captures the Seventies atmosphere with period detail: think patterned wallpapers, wood paneling, the vintage cars, freezers with TV dinners, rotary phones, polyester, fur coats, and frequent use of Seventies radio hits. On an aesthetic level, she nails the vibe of the decade. And while the film is primarily a drama, Hart also gives us moments of shocking violence and well-staged action sequences (a tense nightclub massacre and a thrilling climactic car chase). Having previously directed an indie dramedy (Miss Stevens), a grounded superhero drama (Fast Color) and a Disney YA movie (Stargirl), Hart reveals herself to be a very versatile talent.
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A character-driven film like this lives and dies on the strength of its lead performance, and Brosnahan is absolutely superb in the role. Having won an Emmy and Golden Globes thanks to her star turn on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, this is a great showcase for the actress. Where Miriam “Midge” Maisel is lively and spirited, Jean is more reserved and wary; and Brosnahan excels in conveying Jean’s evolution as she discovers her own strength without sacrificing her femininity. Blake and Kene are also very good as the more seasoned couple who protect Jean and help her navigate the world she’s thrust in; Hart also does a good job at making Cal and Teri badass and giving them depth as well—there’s life to them outside of Jean. And while he’s not in the movie much, Heck does a good job in conveying Eddie’s charm while hinting at a seediness underneath.
‘I’m Your Woman’ Gives the “Wife” in Crime Dramas Her Due
For the most part, crime and gangster dramas are generally characterized by antiheroes who make bold moves while making sure their loved ones know as little as possible about the criminal underworld; think Michael Corleone shutting his girlfriend Kay out at the end of the first Godfather. These loved ones—girlfriend, or wife and kids—exist solely as symbols of redemption, to humanize the antihero, or to just nag and worry. And there’s a point in many of these dramas where the loved ones no longer serve their purpose—when the men have made one too many bad decisions and now have to leave everything behind. We see it in countless movies: the man hurriedly barges in and tells his worried family to pack up their things and run, usually accompanied by a variation of “Don’t ask questions. Trust me. Just go”. His loved ones comply, and off they go.
Most movies would stay with the antihero. But Hart and her husband/co-writer/producer Jordan Horowitz do something interesting instead: tell the story of what happens to the criminal’s loved ones once they’re sent away for their safety, and what it does to their lives. Even as I picture an alternate version of the story from Eddie and Cal’s perspective, we stay on Jean from beginning to end. And while what happened to Eddie and what exactly he did does drive the plot, that’s not really what the movie’s about. This is ultimately a story of Jean discovering who she is and what she’s capable of without her husband.
While not naive about her husband being a criminal, our first impression of Jean is that of a pampered woman who doesn’t seem to have much in terms of a life, personality, or skills. She’s the product of an old-school patriarchal environment that teaches her to just stay home and let the man take care of everything. Jean is weak; that’s how she begins the story. But by the end she’s in a different place: in learning to fend for herself and finding the strength to be more proactive (for herself and for Harry), she claims her power.
Jean’s life on the run with her baby gives the movie an opportunity to comment on motherhood, womanhood, and race. There’s a recurring bit about Jean being a terrible cook, struggling to cook even eggs—generally seen as symbols of life; this hints at her struggles with fertility as well as her own sense of self-worth as both a woman and a mother. But as the film posits, Jean defies what expectations society may have for someone like her. We see it in her tender interactions with Harry and how much she adores him, despite her initial difficulties. Even if she isn’t a perfect woman or mother, she’s ultimately a loving one. The film also subtly comments on Jean’s privilege during an encounter with a state trooper suspicious of seeing her with Cal, a black man, as well as how Jean manages to defuse the situation. A later conversation with Teri also helps Jean realize that as dire as things are for her, it’s even worse for Teri and her family due to their race.
Female empowerment and solidarity are key themes in the story. Even as Jean gains confidence and learns to be self-reliant, her progression is one that’s more believable. It’s in little things, like her realizing that she’s a good liar in dealing with the trooper. At one point she learns how to use a gun, but she also grasps the gravity that comes with wielding it; she doesn’t suddenly turn into a one-note badass. She’s still believably scared throughout a good portion of the film and finds comfort from other women. And Jean’s friendship with Teri becomes very important in the film’s second half as Teri opens Jean’s eyes to what kind of man Eddie really was.
Those looking for a fast-paced crime thriller might be turned off by the more methodical, character-driven approach here. But otherwise, I’m Your Woman is a solid example of how a shift in perspective can enliven a well-worn premise, thanks to both confident directing from Julia Hart and a terrific lead performance from Rachel Brosnahan.
By Mario Yuwono
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