WOMAN OF THE HOUR | USA, Canada | 2023 | 89m | English
Directed By: Anna Kendrick
In the 1970s Rodney Alcala went on a murder spree, luring women by posing as a photographer looking for models. Though already a registered sex offender and recently released from prison, he infamously appeared on The Dating Game, a show that introduced a set of three new bachelors each week, hidden from view as a woman asked them amusing questions before choosing a winner to go on an all-expenses-paid trip with her.
Anna Kendrick’s directorial debut uses this stranger-than-fiction story to examine the distressing dynamics of gender. In addition to directing, Kendrick also plays Cheryl Bradshaw, the struggling actor who decided to book an appearance on the show where she would have a chilling run-in with Alcala. While this confrontation serves as the spine of the film, we’re taken backward and forward through time, exploring Alcala’s murders, with a performance by Daniel Zovatto that captures the disquieting hubris of a man who knows he’s operating in a world too skewed to catch him.
Instead of dwelling on the gruesome details that often preoccupy true-crime tales, Kendrick uses the case to make an incisive statement on the way women are forced to navigate their encounters with men. In addition to being an intelligent metaphor for those uncomfortable nuances, Woman of the Hour also harbours a dark truth: when you’re confronted by the rage of men, the only way to make it out alive is to play the game.
TIFF REVIEW BY: Darren Zakus
RATING 4.5 out of 5
Woman of the Hour is a relentlessly terrifying directorial debut from Anna Kendrick, that combined with strong lead performances from Kendrick and Daniel Zovatto, delivers a whirlwind cinematic experience that will have your heart racing from start to finish.
Many actors have made the jump from in front of the camera to behind the camera in the director’s seat. Some actors have made outstanding debuts while doing so, while others have chosen to return back in front of the camera, but there is no question that Anna Kendrick has made one of the most impressive directorial debuts in recent memory. While Kendrick has been long known for her comedic abilities, she tackles a true crime serial killer story both in front of and behind the camera in Woman of the Hour with a relentless intensity that delivers an unforgettable, thrilling experience that is easily one of the best films of the Toronto International Film Festival I have seen so far.
In 1978 in the midst of a killing spree, serial killer Rodney Alcala participated in the reality dating competition show The Dating Game as one of the contestants. Trying to navigate unappealing men and to gain exposure for her acting career, struggling actress Cheryl Bradshaw navigates her way through the cheesy and hollow game show questions, unwittingly setting herself in the grasp of a deadly serial killer on the hunt for his next victim.
There are countless films based on true stories, but Woman of the Hour has to be one of the wildest premises I have seen explored on the big screen. A serial killer on a dating show is such a far-fetched plot, but writer Ian MacAllister McDonald makes this story into a nail biting thriller that will haunt you long after the credits have ended. Jumping back and forth between the fateful taping of the episode of The Dating Game that Alcala appeared on and previous victims of his, the film creates a chilling portrayal of Alcala in less than ninety minutes. While there is an undeniable terror throughout the entire film, the writing keeps moments of The Dating Show light and enjoyable, with some great comedic moments as Cheryl exposes the gender politics and standards faced by women. Smartly written to catch the audience off guard as the film builds towards its disturbing final act, McDonald has laid the groundwork for a truly excellent film to take flight.
Anna Kendrick and Daniel Zovatto lead the film as Cheryl and Rodney respectively, both with sensational performances. Kendrick brings her bubbly personality and smart comedic timing to Cheryl to great effect for the game show sequences, verbally slicing the male contestants looking for a fun night in half with her razor sharp and playful delivery of McDonald’s dialogue (which could even be improvised at moments by Kendrick). At the same time, Kendrick makes Cheryl highly intelligent and not willing to accept the male preferred role she has been casted to play on the game show, with this intelligence making her a cunning opponent for Zovatto’s Rodney in the final act. Zovatto, on the other hand, is disturbing from the second he appears on screen. Even before he speaks, his icy stare instills true dread in viewers. His slick delivery of his lines may appear charming on the surface, but there is a deadly subtext that Zovatto captures that makes Rodney a true predator that will have you trembling in your seats. Supporting Kendrick and Zovatto is Nicolette Robinson as Laura, a young woman whose friend was a victim of Alcala years earlier, triggered by seeing him on the game show. Robinson does a great job capturing the trauma faced by those who have lost loved ones to a serial killer, helping to build the suspense as she fights to warn the producers of The Dating Game that their star is in danger of becoming the next victim of an undetected serial killer.
The true star of the film is Kendrick in the director’s chair. From the very first scene, Kendrick creates a gripping and unrelenting terror that drives the entire film. While showing Alcala claim his victims, Kendrick chooses to not show the majority of violence head on, savouring it for choice moments throughout the film, instead showing the luring of his prey and obscured shots of the kills instead allowing the sounds of scream to create the horror in the viewer’s mind. To say the least, these sequences are triggering and will no doubt make it hard for some viewers to watch this film, but they are handled with such care by Kendrick to ensure that they are never exploitative of the victims, nor to glorify Alcala’s actions. The sound design itself, or the sheer lack of throughout the film, is vital to creating the unsettling atmosphere of the film, allowing the audience to hear their heart race and gasp as they watch in utter terror. At the same time, Kendrick finds the subtleties in the character movements and interactions that showcase the gender roles and politics of Hollywood in the 1970s, that enrich the film’s story and display how Alcala was able to operate for years undetected by authorities. Paying tribute to her best genre, Kendrick infuses comedy throughout the film to relieve the tension for brief moments, before upping the ante the next as she dials the fear back to its maximum level. Had Kendrick been at the world premiere, the auditorium of the Princess of Wales Theater would have been blown off from the well deserved thunderous sounds of applause and cheers. It’s an exhilarating start to Kendrick’s career as a director, and I for one cannot wait to see what she does next!
Joining the ranks of Ben Affleck, Greta Gerwig and Bradley Cooper as some of the best actors turned directors of the century, Anna Kendrick makes a glorious directorial debut with a harrowing thriller that will have you holding your breath in fear. The story itself is hard to believe, but with Anna Kendrick in the lead role and in the director’s seat, Woman of the Hour is a nail biting experience thanks to her sensational work in front of and behind the camera, and a chilling performance from Daniel Zovatto as Alcala, making it an absolute must see film!