Marianna Palka’s new film, the bluntly titled Bitch, opens on a long take of a sun-kissed, tree-lined suburb overwhelmed by a cacophony of dogs barking. As the canine chorus reaches its peak, we cut to Palka, playing dissatisfied housewife Jill Hart, a woman so far past the end of her rope that she has none left to hang herself with. She has to make do with a belt. The results don’t pan out as she wants. After dangling from the dining room light fixture, she crashes to the floor in a heap when the structure proves too weak to hold her, and we cut again, this time to a portent: A dog running liberated through the streets of her idyllic neighborhood.
Bitch is Palka’s fourth feature as director and her second major outing in 2017, the other being the Netflix series GLOW. Fundamental differences aside, there’s a kinship at play here: Both productions sympathize with the frustrations felt by their female characters, each of them stuck in holding patterns established by male sovereignty. In Bitch, Palka gets to address those frustrations as both its author and its central figure. Jill is a woman after Pedro Almodóvar’s heart, her breakdown occurring fifteen minutes into the movie when her life at home becomes to too much for her to carry alone. She has four children—Tiffany (Brighton Sharbino), Max (Rio Mangini), Cindy (Kingston Foster), and Jed (Jason Maybaum)—with her husband, Bill (Jason Ritter), the latter of whom lives for his work to such extent that they’re all strangers to him. (He’s also an inveterate adulterer. We first meet him with his face buried in his secretary’s nethers before they’re interrupted by a phone call.)
Bill is actually the film’s protagonist, but only by default. After years of neglect and ingratitude, Jill snaps and takes on the persona of a particularly unruly dog. She clambers around naked on all fours, snarling and biting at anyone who gets too close to her, growing filthier by the second as hygiene becomes a bygone habit. The film documents Bill’s pathetic attempts at relearning his fatherly duties while facing up to his failures as a husband, and thus fixates on his journey with Jill serving as plot-driving window dressing. If Bitch was the product of male creativity, it’d be problematic, but Palka wrote and directed the picture herself, and that puts its power and gender dynamics in an entirely different light.
To a point, Bitch is a one-joke effort built around repeat humiliation of its leading man. Bill is disagreeable, whiny, ineffectual, self-indulgent, a total faker: He issues goodbyes to his children the morning of Jill’s devolution and tells her he loves her, as if he’s at all invested in the words. Maybe he is. Maybe he does love his family, but if he does he’s unequipped to actually show them, and less equipped still to perform the rudimentary tasks of adulthood and parenthood. His first day dropping his sons and daughters off at school is a sad joke, and he’s forced to call his sister-in-law, Beth (Jamie King), for backup. The dude is out of his depth, and the one person he selfishly relied on to keep him afloat is sunk herself. (The title feels like an etymological punchline, but it might just be referring to Bill.)
Maybe that’s why Palka shows such staggering empathy for Bill as Bitch progresses. The film starts out steeped in censure, and Bill is its villain, a prototypically inattentive douche more interested in the pursuit of his pleasure and maintaining his identity as a professional man than in keeping his family together. But Bitch lets us feel for Bill by revealing some innate decency buried under layers of gender expectations and corporate servitude. (“Everyone’s waiting for you in the conference room” is to Bitch what “that would be great” is to Office Space.) Bill has no idea who he is without his job. This excuses neither his absences at home nor his philandering, but it lets us see Bill beyond the infidelity, the apathy, the disconnection. The odd side effect of his prominence is that Palka shunts her performance to the side in favor of Ritter’s.
Not that Ritter is her equal, of course, though comparing his work to Palka’s is like comparing apples to oranges smeared with human feces. Complimenting Bitch’s overarching arguments about gender iniquities, Ritter has it easy compared to Palka: Bill merely demands a conventional performance, where Jill demands Oleg Kulik-levels of devotion to the part. Palka is an astonishing force here, thoroughly committed to Jill’s wild transformation with zero visible trace of self-consciousness or even self-awareness. It’s the kind of off-the-wall acting one is tempted to call “daring,” but she so easily demands our attention when she’s on-screen that the label feels disingenuous. She’s remarkably assured for a woman playing a pooch, but, then again, she has to be when most of our attention is focused on Ritter.
That’s Palka’s doing, of course, and she’ll no doubt endure criticism from folks who find the idea of focusing on the man in a movie about a woman’s mental unraveling offensive. But the film’s fixation on Bill’s panicked bumbling doesn’t exclude Jill. She is omnipresent. That’s partly a symptom of the massive impact her condition has on her family, and partly the consequence of Palka’s job title. Because she’s the director, the film is hers even when she isn’t in the frame, which enhances the impact of Bitch’s messages about discarding outdated gender roles. Men and women, Palka tells us, should be free to be whatever they need to be. They can even be dogs, whether literal or euphemistic.
Director: Marianna Palka
Writer: Marianna Palka
Starring: Marianna Palka, Jason Ritter, Jaime King, Brighton Sharbino, Rio Mangini, Kingston Foster, Jason Maybaum, Sol Rodriguez
Release Date: November 10, 2017
Boston-based pop culture critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste since 2013. He also writes words for The Playlist, WBUR’s The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, Polygon, Thrillist, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.