Jean (Rachel Brosnahan) is sullen and vacant. Staring out behind geometric sunglasses, she rests on a lawn chair in a sheer magenta robe, cigarette in hand, the epitome of the young, begrudging Seventies housewife and the stuff Lana Del Rey videos are made of. We’re given hints to the exact nature of Jean’s domestic life: Her husband Eddie (Bill Heck) leaves her alone at home throughout the day, his life of crime largely a mystery to her other than its existence; the couple wanted to have kids, “but then they didn’t”; her lush gown still carries a tag attached to it, suggesting it was stolen — a detail Jean doesn’t seem too surprised by when she discovers it. Nevertheless, she’s eager to tear that tag off.
From its opening scenes, writer-director Julia Hart’s I’m Your Woman (streaming on Amazon starting December 11th) immediately places its lead character as the latest in a long line of crime-drama wives and girlfriends, from the classic film noir queens like Barbara Stanwyck to the Nineties mob wives brought to life by Lorraine Bracco. (Or, if you prefer your killjoy spouses on the small screen, Anna Gunn in Breaking Bad.) These characters are often the objects of both lust and scorn from the audience, either because they drag the male protagonist down further into the depths of immorality or are hen-pecking him so much that he can’t live out a machismo crime fantasy with his boys. The subversive premise here is simple: What if this female archetype was not only the protagonist, but the recipient of our sympathies as well?
To Hart and her co-screenwriter Jordan Horowitz’s credit, I’m Your Woman doesn’t give it to us that easy. It would have been straightforward (and lazy) to give us a whipsmart feminist heroine with punchy, patriarchy-smashing zingers. Instead, Jean is entitled to the point of annoyance, and she acquiesces to her thieving husband’s commands. The first we see of Eddie is when he brings Jean home a baby; where the infant came from, we don’t know. But she blankly adopts him and names him Harry. Soon after, she and the child are forced to go on the run — Eddie got on someone’s bad side, though who or how is unclear, and now they’re seeking revenge. They flee with the help of Cal (Arinzé Kene), an old partner of Eddie’s, and while Jean spends plenty of time protesting her new, spartan lifestyle, hiding out in motel after roadside motel, the movie makes clear that Jean is not used to making her own decisions. Her judgment isn’t always sound. Her husband never even let her drive a car, she says. And when she dares to invite a kind stranger into her current safehouse, the consequences are horrific.
The downside is that this makes for a bleak, repetitive, and sometimes agonizingly sluggish first half of the film, which isn’t helped by the run-of-the-mill crime thriller dialogue — think men waving guns in Jean’s face, yelling, “Don’t lie to us!” — nor the “creamy” digital film colors and textures characteristic of every other period movie or TV show on a streaming service right now. (Like, for example, Brosnahan’s own comedy The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.) But once more of Jean’s backstory becomes apparent and we get a less opaque window into her psyche, things start to pick up steam. We’re introduced to Cal’s family, including his wife Teri (Marsha Stephanie Blake), his son Paul (De’Mauri Parks), and his father Art (Frankie Faison). Blake, in particular, gives the film’s standout performance as the steady yet assertive spouse, and the interactions between Jean and the black family she finds herself in the care of are beautifully complex, without ever resorting to using them as props for yet another white character’s personal journey.
Nor does the film ever feel pedantic about its social commentary. It’s no coincidence that I’m Your Woman is set in the Seventies, a time of racial upheaval in this country as well as a transformative decade for what we define as American womanhood. Thankfully, the film largely ignores its era’s greater sociopolitical climate as fodder for easy period signifiers — no newsreels of Nixon or radio broadcasts from Vietnam here — in favor of focusing on the intimate lines drawn amongst its characters. In an earlier interaction between Jean, Cal, and a police officer, she takes advantage of her femininity, her motherhood and, notably, the color of her skin to mitigate the cop’s aggression towards Cal. It’s an early attempt to stand up for herself that doubles as a careful acknowledgment of the characters’ racial and gender tensions.
On the flipside, when Jean learns that Teri has a history with Eddie, and was put into an eerily similar fugitive scenario by his actions, Jean remarks defensively, “It’s worse because we have a kid” — to which Teri responds, “Nothing’s worse for you.” Their exchange acts as a subtle nod to how the two women’s lives are inherently on unequal footing, and a movie that doesn’t make a show of being about race even addressing those dynamics at all shouldn’t have to feel so revelatory.
I’m Your Woman becomes more rewarding the more you sit with it; even its nihilistic first half and occasional half-baked dialogue will likely be easier on the second watch, once you know where it all leads. If you’re willing to be patient, the characters become richer, the narrative takes more risks and the set pieces are more enthralling, like an engrossing disco sequence and a lumbering car chase in giant, period-accurate sedans.
Best of all, the clumsy motif that the film introduces to demonstrate Jean’s incompetency, i.e. her inability to crack eggs properly, gives way to a much more original arc about adoptive family and parenthood, whereby Jean learns that being a good mother and being a good housewife are not the same. (It also leads to the best line in the entire movie, from Blake: “Do you cook for your family? Then you’re the greatest chef in the world.”) At a pivotal, contemplative moment for Jean during the film’s conclusion, the soundtrack plays Aretha Franklin’s version of “The Weight,” one of her many transcendent covers of a classically male-fronted song. It’s a weary exhale, and a quiet moment of joy.