In Bitch, a premise that sounds like a particularly shitty ‘90s comedy is mined for challenging social commentary.
In writer/director/star Marianna Palka’s newest film, Bitch, a premise that sounds like a particularly shitty ‘90s comedy is mined for challenging social commentary. Palka portrays Jill Hart, an overworked stay-at-home-mom who, after a failed suicide attempt, suffers a psychotic break and transforms into a rabid canine.
Not literally, of course. This isn’t a werewolf movie. Rather, Jill sheds her clothes, replaces her words with guttural barks and hides out in the basement covered in her own feces. It’s the sort of thing you can imagine unfolding more innocuously as a weird family comedy destined for replays on TBS, but Palka utilizes a strange mix of genre and satire to craft a difficult, sometimes cloying look at the myth of the modern American family.
On the one hand, a movie that has its female lead devolve into a dog to illustrate the fucked up core of the typical suburban husband/wife dynamic is about as subtle as a brick to the head. But the way Palka flits seamlessly between domestic horror, Lifetime network-style melodrama and slapstick comedy is astonishing in its bravery. This is a profoundly weird film that doesn’t always work in any one of its many modes, but cumulatively paints a picture that’s harrowing and honest in its depiction of gender roles and capitalism’s effect on the nuclear family unit. See, Palka doesn’t frame herself as the story’s protagonist. Instead, the spotlight is thrust upon her clueless husband Bill, played with astonishing brio by her real-life spouse, Jason Ritter.
Ritter first plays Bill like a Looney Toon approximation of an ineffectual patriarch. Bill thinks he’s an overworked executive who takes care of all the hard, fiscal elements of their life, so to him, Jill being pushed to the brink of her own sanity raising four children essentially solo is only fair. In reality, he does literally nothing at his company, save for fucking low-level administrative staff and being late to meetings. He doesn’t know any of his kids’ teachers’ names, much less what grades they’re in or how to even get to their schools.
At first, this is played for laughs, because the cartoonish absurdity of a grown man asking his assistant to Google the location of his kids’ place of education is hilarious, if downright disturbing. But once Bill brings in Jill’s sister Beth (Jaime King) for help, he basically pushes her into the same position he already drove his wife to. Watching her clean up after his unruly but precocious children while he pounds vodka in the shower and blames his wife for her own mental breakdown, the laughs fade away and it becomes a difficult image to stomach.
Luckily, Ritter is a captivating enough screen presence that Bill continues to be compelling long after it’s clear how reprehensible he is. In Ritter’s eyes, there’s a slim glimmer of a man who really does love his wife and his family, but who has become far too entrenched in a flawed understanding of what’s expected of him. With a lesser performer, Bill would be an easy character to despise, and he still inspires a great deal of loathing, but the movie moves heaven and Earth to get him to change.
Palka’s fearless performance as Jill is incredible not for the many scenes of her enshrouded in shadow, looking feral and intense, but for the pair of sequences that bookend the film. The first, seeing Jill right at the precipice of losing it, a belt around her throat already resembling the leash she’ll need in the near future. The latter, in the film’s surprisingly touching final scenes, as Bill and Jill must attempt to find some peculiar sliver of catharsis among the wreckage of their life together. It’s a testament to these two performers’ respective abilities that a movie about a stressed wife turning into the literal “bitch” of the film’s title finds its thorny way to a conclusion tinged with regret, honesty and hope. The film closes on a touching note that might not have worked as well in a story less driven by a peerless dedication to probing the extreme.