I’ll admit, stepping into a film titled Bitch—even one directed by a woman—was an experience I entered into with more than a little trepidation at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. All I knew about it going into it was that at some point a woman takes on the qualities of a dog after being subjected to years of her husband taking her for granted and offering her no help with any portion of their life together.
Would the film feel like exploitation or degradation on some level? Would it be an exercise in man-hating (which I would have been fine with)? It turns out my fears were utterly unwarranted. In fact, not only is Bitch none of those things, but it is the most thought-provoking, intelligent, and purely feminist films I’ve seen in ages, with a powerhouse lead performance by writer-director Marianna Palka (Good Dick).
The word “fearless” is too often tossed around about actors, but I can’t think of a better example of fearless than Palka’s turn as Jill, who opens the film with a barely failed suicide attempt, letting us know right from the beginning that we are dealing with someone who feels she has nothing to lose and nothing to live for. She’s the mother of four young children who never stop screaming or moving or demanding, and is wife to Bill (Jason Ritter), who maneuvers around his house like Jill and the kids are objects to be avoided rather than acknowledged. Bill is also cheating on his wife with a co-worker and barely cares if Jill finds out. But almost worse than that, he’s completely lost any compassion for the never-ending work that Jill puts in with the kids or around the home. At one point, she asks him to provide some relief, and she’s so overwhelmed that she can barely get the words out.
There’s a recurring element to the beginning of the film of dogs howling at night around the house, and one particular dog who stands outside the house staring in as if waiting for something. There’s the distinct possibility that only Jill hears or sees these animals, but it has a lasting impact on her psyche, and when she finally snaps, she turns into something beyond feral. Just for clarification’s sake, Jill does not transform into a dog—she does’t grow fur and a tail and sharp teeth. Nor does she take on the qualities of a family pet, for the simple reason that a pet is something that people love and care for, and Jill is not feeling either of those things. Instead, she becomes a naked, filthy, growling, snapping animal that takes up residence in the family basement, where she proceeds to piss and shit all over the floor, walls, and herself, while acting aggressively toward anything that enters her domain.
Before anyone discovers her in this state, Bill believes his wife has simply run away, and being so completely self-centered, his reaction on this day and many days after is “Why is she doing this to me?” Bill is forced to get the kids to school for the first time in his life and deal with the care of the household, which he is utterly unqualified to do. When Bill has his own breakdown once he understands the complete depth of Jill’s state of mind, he looks like an infant throwing a tantrum. Jill’s sister (Jaime King), who has had mixed feelings about Bill from the beginning, shows up to help and actually takes a reasoned approach to her aid, supporting everyone for the betterment of her sister. She understands that Bill needs to discover his inner caretaker and become a genuinely supportive husband for any of this to work.
The most radical thing about Bitch might be that it’s actually Bill’s story. He has the most expansive and interesting arc, and Ritter fleshes out the character in ways that are unexpected and quite moving. Easily the best work in his career, Ritter doesn’t allow Bill to simply turn into a nice guy when the occasion calls for it. He resists with every fiber of his being, hoping Jill will simply snap out of her psychosis and pick things up where she left them. But while he’s waiting for this to happen, he ends his affair, gets to know his kids, and rediscovers his love for Jill and the partnership that they once had. Bill’s mission isn’t to “fix” Jill; it’s to change the question from “Why is she doing this to me?” to “What have I done to make this happen to her?” It’s a tough transition for him to make, but Ritter captures the struggle and makes it feel authentic.
I don’t pretend to be an expert on feminist filmmaking, but the idea that a husband must rediscover the time in a marriage when he and his wife were equals and deeply in love as a result seems like a wonderfully shocking, eye-opening, and absolutely essential message right now. That being said, Bitch isn’t a message film; it’s a deeply personal, intimate piece of storytelling that holds within it dark, uncomfortable humor and pain, all of which is accentuated with a staggered, rhythmic (mostly drum-centric) score by Morgan Z. Whirledge that attempts to re-create both the chaotic sounds of the household and the chaos inside Jill’s frenzied head.
There are a lot of ways the final section of the film could have played out, none of which is particularly better than another. That being said, there’s a sequence in a dog park with Ritter and Palka that had me and everyone around me choked up or flat-out bawling. At first, it feels like an exercise straight out of Day 1 of a high school acting class, but Ritter so completely commits to the moment that he sells the emotional rawness, flooring me with its effectiveness. The minutes that follow that scene are almost unnecessary, but not in a way that lessens the impact of the film as a whole. By not attempting to make Bitch an overtly political- or message-focused film, Palka has crafted something all-the-more powerful, beautiful, and extraordinary.
The film opens today for a weeklong run at Facets Cinémathèque.