Anna Kendrick’s Directorial Debut, Woman of the Hour, Is Self-Assured and Familiar Serial Killer Drama

Movies Reviews Anna Kendrick
Anna Kendrick’s Directorial Debut, Woman of the Hour, Is Self-Assured and Familiar Serial Killer Drama

It’s difficult to conjure up an image creepier than that of a male photographer, so when Woman of the Hour opens on a male photographer taking photos of a woman in the middle of nowhere as she tearfully opens up about the personal details of her life, the tension is immediately high. Maybe in the late 1970s, male photographers weren’t suspect off the bat, but we live in an age when we know better, precisely because of stories like the one told in Anna Kendrick’s self-assured directorial debut. 

The male photographer in question is Rodney Alcala (Daniel Zovatto in a terrible wig), who went on to be sentenced to death in California for five murders committed between 1977 and 1979, although it is speculated by investigators that the true number of the notorious serial killer’s victims could be as high as 130. He died in prison in 2021. Alcala traveled across the United States, photographing women and girls in a disturbingly violent, pornographic manner, and murdering them. Alcala managed to evade arrest for years, despite being placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted list in 1971. 

Alcala holds a particularly fascinating place in the true-crime canon not only because of his disgustingly long rap sheet, but also because of his appearance on the popular program The Dating Game in the middle of his killing spree in 1978. Alcala didn’t just appear on the show, he actually won a date with the lucky bachelorette, an aspiring actress named Cheryl Bradshaw (Anna Kendrick), which is where Kendrick picks up the story. 

By the time Alcala made his on-screen debut, he had already been arrested for child molestation and assault, served jail time twice for those crimes and been released on parole in both cases; this is not to mention the unspeakable crimes he had previously committed and gotten away with, for one reason or another. Which leads Kendrick and screenwriter Ian MacAllister-McDonald to cheekily beg the question, “Do Hollywood producers not care about the safety of women?” Sure, it was a lot more difficult to keep track of dangerous perverts back then without the modern technology, but considering Alcala had done time twice in California, and did not use a fake name on the show, his sketchy past was certainly available to anyone even casually looking for it, especially someone with money and power, like a producer. 

Kendrick’s direction is less concerned with utilizing the grisly details of Alcala’s murders for shock value, and more focused on the patriarchal conditions in an environment like a Los Angeles sound stage that would allow for a twisted killer of women to not just hide in plain sight, but to brazenly appear on television. This makes for a true-crime drama that doesn’t cruelly rely on victims’ suffering, which is somewhat refreshing, but it also makes for a declawed thriller. Instead of looking directly at Alcala’s reign of terror, Kendrick and MacAllister-McDonald have invented their own details, some of which work better than others. 

The strongest points of invention by the filmmakers are the total personality facelift they give to Kendrick’s character, Cheryl, and the male feminist façade they give to Alcala, which are used to update the film for our 21st century understanding of gender politics. By the time Cheryl goes on The Dating Game, she’s already been jaded against the misogyny women too often face in the entertainment industry, and in everyday life. Out of insecurity or boredom, she’s recently (regrettably) slept with her “nice guy” neighbor (finally, the perfect casting for Pete Holmes). One too many male producers has dismissed her without a second glance because she doesn’t fit their mold of what a “woman” should look like. Therefore, she is ready to give up on her acting dreams, right when her agent gets her a spot on The Dating Game—she’s willing to give it a shot, if only for the exposure. 

On the show, Cheryl is expected to play the submissive, smiley girl who is up for anything, but that’s not who the movie version of Cheryl is. With one foot already out the door of showbiz, Cheryl decides to play her own game, rewriting the insulting, asinine pre-written questions into funnier, smarter questions that trap the men into exposing their own stupidity and bigotry against women. This makes her unpopular with the show’s host (a hilarious Tony Hale), but popular with audiences, who are intelligent enough to be ready for a new spin on the tired old television tropes. This might feel familiar, because it is. 

Cheryl’s proto-feminist games might work on bachelors numbers one and two, who bungle and stumble over themselves, but bachelor number three, Alcala, is portrayed as the suave, male feminist knight in shining armor who knows all the right answers to Cheryl’s questions such as, “What are girls for?” She is impressed with his answer: That would be up to the girl. (The real Alcala was just as much of a pig as anyone else on the show.)

The movie version of Rodney Alcala is the perfect guy, until the cameras stop rolling, the lights go off and it’s time for Cheryl to walk to her car in a big empty parking lot at night, with only Alcala for company, in an unsettling scene shot expertly by Barbarian cinematographer Zach Kuperstein. Exposure to a psychotic murderer is not the kind of exposure Cheryl had in mind when she agreed to go on The Dating Game, but it’s the kind she gets. The real Cheryl told investigators that she didn’t go on the date with Alcala because she found him “creepy.”

While the updated dynamic between Alcala and Cheryl works for Woman of the Hour, the fictitious storyline of an audience member named Laura (Nicolette Robinson) recognizing Alcala as the man who killed her friend, and consequently not being taken seriously by her boyfriend or the police, does not. Yes, this B-plot fills out the runtime, and bolsters Alcala’s appearance on The Dating Game as the central thrust of the film, but it’s weak on its own. Anyone coming into Kendrick’s directorial debut already agrees with the fundamental fact that women are very rarely believed when they report their stories to the police, and Laura’s character isn’t given much to do aside from Not Being Believed. 

You may notice I have hardly touched on Alcala’s actual victims, and that is because Kendrick has centered her film around Cheryl’s failing acting career, rather than the countless women who were mercilessly raped and murdered at the hands of Alcala. Yes, there are a few (tame) kills, and one strong performance from Autumn Best as the teen runaway who narrowly escaped Alcala’s murderous wrath. The Dating Game plot is strong, and while it is a rather freaky piece of trivia, it is more of a footnote in Alcala’s murder spree than the entire story.

Director: Anna Kendrick
Writer: Ian MacAllister-McDonald 
Starring: Anna Kendrick, Daniel Zavatto, Autumn Best
Release Date: September 8, 2023 (Toronto International Film Festival)

Brooklyn-based film writer Katarina Docalovich was raised in an independent video store and never really left. Her passions include sipping lime seltzer, trying on perfume and spending hours theorizing about Survivor. You can find her scattered thoughts as well as her writing on Twitter.

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