At last year’s Toronto film festival, Anna Kendrick played a woman crumbling within an emotionally abusive relationship in Alice, Darling, an unsettling psychodrama that proved revelatory for the star, typically associated with lighter fare. At the time she spoke about her uncomfortable connection to the material, having once been at the mercy of a controlling, noxious boyfriend, and there’s a similarly specific unease to her follow-up, the fact-based thriller Woman of the Hour, a film also focused on how the oppressiveness of gender dynamics can lead to horror.
This time, the horror is of a more tangible and gruesome kind, shown to us in short sharp bursts, flashbacks to the killings of Rodney Alcala, a charming photographer who preyed on women and young girls in the 1970s. In a bizarre twist, Alcala was also a contestant on hit ABC show The Dating Game and the day of his appearance makes up the majority of the movie. Kendrick plays Cheryl Bradshaw, the woman who chose him.
It’s a fascinating and frightening stranger-than-fiction tale and is an unusual choice for Kendrick’s directorial debut. She makes a convincing first-time film-maker, capturing the feel of a time and a number of places with ease, despite not shooting on location in the US (it was a Canadian production). Ian MacAllister McDonald’s lean, probing script uses Alcala’s appearance as grim commentary on the morality of dating shows, or lack thereof, and the knife-edge danger of dating for women, a constant awareness that violence is forever close, a bruised ego turning nasty in a heartbeat. At times he can be a little too blunt with such reminders but he builds a believably discomfitting world for women at the time, when nakedly misogynistic behaviour was even more commonplace. There’s an increasing exhaustion for Cheryl, navigating what feels like an impossible world, defences always up, tongue being bitten, a fear that never really goes away.
In a genre where the gore and gristle of serial killers can become overly fetishised, along with the bodies of the many women they kill, Kendrick smartly decides how to show us Alcala’s violence and how much to humanise his victims. In the spliced vignettes, we see how Alcala, played with eerie confidence by Daniel Zovatto, weaponised the many privileges afforded to him as a handsome, well-spoken white man, easily inserting himself into lives that he would then cruelly end. The deaths are tough to watch without being explicit, restrained without sacrificing the necessary shock value.
The absurdity of a serial killer not only appearing on the show but then winning acts as an extreme indictment not just of how the world of straight dating operates but of how television does also. The story carries with it echoes of the Ryan Jenkins case, another predator who ended up on a dating show decades later. Even as reality shows have become more thorough with background checks and an alleged improvement in duty of care towards contestants, they remain a chilling microcosm. Recent seasons of Love Island have brought with them complaints over emotional abuse, gaslighting and the manipulation of women and so while the tacky trappings of the show in the film have aged, the dusty gender dynamics less so.
There are moments of dark comedy in the film, some of which work given the oddity of the situation but some feel a little too discordant, a little too modern perhaps. Buoyed on by the exhausted older women working around her, Cheryl decides to flip the script for the second half of her episode, asking her own questions, a fun conceit but one that feels a little distracting, taking us out of the reality of the situation and playing a fun “what if?” game instead. The date that takes place after the show is an invention as well but a welcome one, a horribly tense sequence that shows Kendrick has a real knack for building suspense. The end of the film offers another scene of seat-edge tension, this time taken directly from the true story, and while the film induces its fair share of gasps, none will be quite as audible as those that follow the text on screen after all fades to black. The Alcala case and its gross mishandling acts as a sadly timeless example of what happens when only certain alarm bells are listened to and only certain people ringing them are believed.
Woman of the Hour is screening at the Toronto film festival with a release date yet to be announced