AFI Fest 2020 Review: The Punishment Doesn’t Fit the Crime in Julia Hart’s Inventive Thriller “I’m Your Woman”

“You’re not allowed to talk to anyone – no friends, no acquaintances,” Cal (Arinzé Kene) tells Jean (Rachel Brosnahan) in introducing her to her new home in “I’m Your Woman,” as if it’ll make much of a difference to her when this is the way it’s been for her for years. They’ve only just met after Jean learns her husband Eddie (Bill Heck) has disappeared and Cal’s been assigned to keep her safe from Eddie’s associates who might wish her harm. For what reason, she doesn’t know as she’s always known just enough about Eddie to not want to know any more and in being careful never to cross into his world, she’s never had much of one of her own, made to believe she wouldn’t amount to much without him and hardly finding fulfillment in the role she’s been consigned to as his wife, apt to burn toast when preparing his breakfast and uncomfortable calling herself a mother when he shows up one day with a baby she’s suddenly put in charge of.

Traditionally you don’t spend much time with someone like Jean in a movie — and if you do, you’ll see her take charge of her life in short order — but writer/director Julia Hart and co-writer Jordan Horowitz have something different up their sleeve. For anyone who’s ever seen a mob movie and thought a side character would be far more interesting to follow than the lead, “I’m Your Woman” indulges that and then some, evolving into a compelling drama where the person who did nothing wrong in the eyes of the law spends every day in a prison and breaking out will involve far less obvious instruments than guns and money to deal with crimes that no one sees except inside the families that have to live in hiding. As much as Eddie’s disappearance is destabilizing for Jean, who is handed $200,000 and instructions to place her trust in Cal without having ever met him before, the opportunity to learn more about who she is apart from her husband becomes a surprising source of tension when there’s a fear in finding out what blinders she put on and what she was willing to accept as she was protecting herself all these years.

There are sly allusions throughout to those other movies that Jean would have a supporting role in, resulting in as potent a visual metaphor as they come when she can be seen crouching in a telephone booth as violence breaks out at a club, having to engage with a world she’s long sat on the sidelines of. In keeping with Hart’s penchant for turning genres on their ear, Jean’s increasing participation plays to one of the writer/director’s great strengths since her debut “Miss Stevens,” crafting conversations that always serve a far larger purpose than exposition as the question of who to trust makes speaking plainly becomes a gift that someone can give to another and what’s withheld, either out of great care or concern, conveys volumes about a relationship. She takes full advantage of Brosnahan, who always appears so intent on finding the right words to say — the wheels always turning in her mind even when it feels like Jean is irreparably stuck, and the drama vividly plays out on her face as she starts opening up to others, particularly Cal, who has reasons to be even less forthcoming than Jean is.

Set in ‘70s, “I’m Your Woman” emerges from the shrewd observation that when gangsters started being given inner lives onscreen in the films of Scorsese and Coppola, greater numbers of women were starting to investigate theirs off of it, no longer seeing their own experience as being relative to a man’s, giving an extra pop to the many bubbles being burst cinematically in Jean’s story. With costume designer Natalie O’Brien and production designer Gae Buckley’s exquisite work leaping off the screen initially, the poofy pink cuffs of Jean’s robe and the flowery patterns of wallpaper start to appear as shackles and bars, giving way to a grittier reality where the lighting flourishes in Bryce Fortner’s cinematography occasionally break through to suggesting how difficult it is for Jean to leave her illusions behind. (Sneaking into this specific mental space has become a real specialty of the director of photography who previously shot “Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman” and “Ingrid Goes West.”) It becomes a little bit of a running joke that Cal staves off a nicotine addiction by pretending to smoke unlit cigarettes, believing that going through the motions satisfies his cravings, and as “I’m Your Woman” proceeds, ticking off certain boxes of the genre in intriguing new ways, you can understand what he means when the vessel has made the drug inside no longer necessary to intoxicate, especially when Hart has replaced it with something even stronger inside.

“I’m Your Woman” will start streaming on Amazon Prime on December 11th.

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