Saturday, 30 December 2017

Movie Review: The Most Hated Woman In America (2017)
The plot: Atheism activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair (Melissa Leo), her son Jon (Michael Churnus) and her granddaughter Robin (Juno Temple) have been kidnapped by Madalyn’s former work colleague David Waters (Josh Lucas) for a ransom. As they try and find a way out of their situation, Madalyn reminisces about the events that led her to this point, from working with her other son William (Vincent Kartheiser) to ban in prayer in public schools to founding the organization American Atheists to her frequent clashes with the Christian populace. It seems that no good deed truly goes unpunished.

With how captivating Melissa Leo has been in supporting roles over the years, it is damn satisfying seeing her take the lead role with this much gusto. She imbues the rather fiery atheist with all the passion and inhuman drive you could ask for, making for a central performance that immediately and consistently engages. Lucas as the lead kidnapper is an ideal casting choice, given the man’s history with unabashedly dickish antagonists, and he works off of Leo less like a dominator and more like an intellectual sparring partner. Vincent “Connor from Angel” Kartheiser actually ends up giving the strongest performance here, as he lets the stress and inner anguish of his character sit tightly on his shoulders, resulting in a role that is weirdly complex for a film that is ultimately pretty cut-and-dry. Chernus and Temple only end up showing that charisma is not a genetic trait with how lifeless they feel (man, 2017 has not been a good year for Juno Temple), Rory Cochrane brings some much needed griminess to the hostage scenes, Adam Scott as an investigative journalist is just okay, and Brandon Mychal Smith as Madalyn’s ally Roy should not be here, since his mere presence in the story results in some… questionable dissonance.

When bringing a true story to the big screen (or small-ish screen, since this is a Netflix Original), biographical details are the main thread that tie things together. If you’re going to bother with a direct depiction of history, rather than going with the “Inspired By Actual Events” route, the details are crucial. Unfortunately, we don’t really get a whole lot of them in this film. Watching this, you definitely get a sense that Madalyn wore whatever derision she got on her sleeve, but the reasons for that derision are rather embarrassingly glossed-over. Her involvement in the court ruling that mandatory prayer in school is unconstitutional? A few lines of dialogue and a TV news recap, all without a single moment inside a courthouse. And that’s just the specifics; Madalyn’s actual activist work barely even gets brought to the surface, not even the work of American Atheists as an organization. The film is so focused on Madalyn as a person in her own right that it ends up neglecting her specific actions and the very things that made her remembered enough to warrant this film in the first place. And believe it or not, we’re only scratching the surface of the wrong that is this movie.

So, in lieu of depictions of activism, what do we get instead? Finances, mainly. It is seriously bizarre to see a film where the mentions of money and possible embezzlement ends up outweighing anything to do with actual atheism. Aside from boiling down the reason for Madalyn’s kidnapping to easily the most uninteresting element, it doesn’t even reach the point where it’s serving as any kind of contrast. With how tax exemption has made organized religions a mint in the modern world, this so easily could have been used as a way of contrasting her efforts against those of her opponents, maybe as a way of showing that their means aren’t so different from each other. But no, the film just thinks that Madalyn’s bank balance is the most interesting thing about her, something that Leo spends pretty much every single scene trying to prove otherwise. This ends up taking a weird turn once it reaches the point where the economic side of things is all that the film highlights, showing her public debates with Reverend Bob Harrington (Peter Fonda). This is shortly after Roy admits to the reporter that being black and gay in Texas is a tough job and Madalyn gave him support when no-one else could. Cut to her calling Christians faggots like a try-hard Youtube atheist. See what I mean about that disconnect?

And that isn’t the only example of that. Along with eyeing her off-shore accounts, the film also takes a fair bit of time out to show her mannerisms around her family… and she’s basically depicted as a distaff version of Kevin Sorbo in God’s Not Dead in how verbally abusive she can get towards her own family, including her born-again son. There’s even a scene dedicated to her basically calling mea culpa on how she has treated her children over the years, which is a bit odd considering even that gets glossed over more than a few times. So, rather than highlighting the titular character as a polemic but influential figure in American atheism, she is shown here to be an economically-corrupt, relative-discarding troll. Given the recent surge in Christian cinema, along with how prominent atheist figures don’t usually get this kind of feature-length treatment, this treatment of the character feels right at home with the usual PureFlix standard of making atheists out to be the worst kind of people on Earth. Especially when her kidnappers are depicted as opportunistic but inept goons who spend more time playing video games and watching football with their captors than actually threatening them. I can’t confirm or deny any religious bias that went into this from a production point-of-view, but just based on the text of the film, there’s not a whole lot of other conclusions I can come to. I originally planned on making a joke about how this film is actually a documentary about Hilary Clinton, going by the title, but I’m actually not that far off. Mentally replace the talk of money in this with talk of suspicious emails and you have a general idea of how petty this comes across.

All in all, I wasn’t expecting to get to this point but I honestly think this is just trash. An engrossing and fiery performance from Melissa Leo is utterly wasted through a sheer lack of story detail, characterization that makes it seem like the film is aiming to vilify its lead more than anything else, and not nearly enough focus on how the events should be presented. I’ll say it again: Representation fucking matters, and since we’re not likely to get a Richard Dawkins biopic any time soon, atheism getting a mainstream depiction of this stature is a little disconcerting. It’s a lovingly-painted target for the people who still think there’s an actual War On Christmas and that there’s a conspiracy to wipe religion off the face of the Earth; when your story historically ends with murder and mutilation and this much time is taken out to make the victim out to be the bad guy, there is something seriously wrong here.

This ranks lower than Temple, which may be a far plainer and dismal production as a whole but it’s also so boring that it’s unlikely to create any real sense of frustration; not in me, at least. This film could have been so much better, so the drop between potential and payoff ends up hurting even more than plain vanilla bad filmmaking. However, as annoying as this is, it’s at least short and it has brief flashes of elements that could have made this better. I’m struggling to think of anything in Bright that could have possibly saved it, given the whole thing is pretty broken from the ground-up.

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