There are countless microscopic experiences that women go through on a daily basis that are hard to put into words, lest they come across as dramatic or small. A whistle across a dark street at night, or a hand at the small of your back. What might happen if you turn down a drink, a phone number, or a ride? When nothing bad happens, it’s often left unspoken about – filed in the back of our brains under the heart-racing almosts and what-ifs. That indescribable fear may sit dormant in our minds, yet it can resurface in a split second as soon as we’re back in an uncomfortable situation. Women have no choice but to live with this kind of numbing, all-too-familiar fear. Not always easy to translate on film, it’s a complex feeling that Anna Kendrick understands in her immensely impressive and powerful directorial debut, Woman of the Hour.
Perhaps best known for the Pitch Perfect and Trolls franchises, Anna Kendrick directs and stars in Woman of the Hour with a script excellently written by Ian MacAllister McDonald (Some Freaks). The film is based on the wild true story of serial killer Rodney Alcala and his televised appearance on The Dating Game reality show in the ’70s, while in the midst of his killing spree. However, Kendrick isn’t interested in the gruesome portrayal of murder or even making a serial killer biopic. Instead, she cleverly uses Woman of the Hour to spotlight gender dynamics and the misogyny that women endure all too often, especially regarding the greatest fear of them all, which unfortunately five women suffered at the hands of the twisted Alcala between 1977 and 1979. Although he has been linked to eight confirmed victims, authorities believe that Alcala could have harmed up to 130 people before his imprisonment.
After going AWOL and being discharged from the military in 1964, where he was diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, Rodney Alcala would lure girls into his car by telling them he was a photographer looking for models. Once alone and out in the middle of the desert, he was known to commit unspeakable acts and “play” with his victims – resuscitating them multiple times before ending their lives for good. What makes his case unique, though, is his appearance on The Dating Game in 1978. The TV game show consisted of three male bachelors hidden behind a wall answering the questions of a female contestant looking for a suitor on the other side. That evening, Alcala smooth-talked and charmed the bachelorette of the hour, Cheryl Bradshaw, enough that she actually picked him as the lucky winner.
Anna Kendrick portrays Cheryl in Woman of the Hour, who’s revealed to be a down-on-her-luck actor taking on the game show as a last-minute gig from her agent. She’s fast-learning and too witty for her own good, even when the showrunners and host Jim Lange (Tony Hale) try to dumb her down for television. Where Kendrick shines in both her precise direction as well in her performance is an intense encounter between her and Alcala (Daniel Zovatto) in a parking lot after the gameshow and during their prized dinner date. From her anxiety-inducing depiction of how terrifying it can be to simply utter a “no,” to a shaky close call being stalked to her car, these moments in particular showcase Kendrick’s unwavering ability to create and hold raw, horrifying tension.
Daniel Zovatto (Station Eleven) is extremely terrifying as Alcala, giving an eerie take on a charming murderer hiding in plain sight. He plasters on a chilling smile, long dark hair framing his face and camera in hand. Similar to Cheryl, Alcala is quick-witted and light on his toes. He’s got explanations for everything and is an expert at building a false sense of security around himself. Then there’s Laura (Nicolette Robinson) who attends The Dating Game in the live studio audience, instantly recognizing Alcala as the main suspect in her best friend’s rape and murder. Her heart-wrenching turnout as a woman who is trying desperately to be believed – by her boyfriend, the police, anyone – is captivating and equally as engaging as the other knockout roles.
Throughout the movie we follow a few timelines, the day and evening The Dating Game episode takes place as well as a few of Alcala’s past crimes, following them from their meeting with the camera-clad beast, through the steps that ultimately lead to their demise. This nonlinear structure works to the film’s advantage. The editing is specific and intentional, showing us what we need to see from each plot thread at its most effective points in the overarching story. Additionally, we aren’t shown beyond what is necessary regarding Alcala’s killings, leaving a lot to the imagination which is arguably more powerful than any graphic imagery one could depict on screen. This ultimately helps Woman of the Hour drive home its heavy message and carry enough emotion throughout the entirety of its snappy 89-minute runtime, always holding that precious tension Kendrick superbly crafts.
With Woman of the Hour, Anna Kendrick commits her all to directing a sharp and engrossing feature while also giving a moving performance as Cheryl Bradshaw. Her passion for this story bleeds from the screen as she portrays these very real and common events with palpable levels of desperation and anger. The horrors of Rodney Alcala have already been covered in numerous true crime documentaries, so Kendrick and screenwriter Ian MacAllister McDonald work double time to ensure that audiences walk away from Woman of the Hour with more than just another glorified history lesson. It’s a rare quality that is seen in fewer and fewer cinematic retellings of real-life atrocities, especially those of serial killers, these days as most opt for shock value and easy audience engagement. This is thankfully not the case here.
Through multi-faceted performances, excellent writing, and an atmosphere of great tension and suspense, Anna Kendrick surpasses expectations with her excellent directorial debut. She successfully brings to screen awareness of the harrowing ways women are forced to navigate daily life alongside men – with caution and vigilance. Whether you’re opposite a dangerous individual such as Rodney Alcala or just a harmless “good guy,” the real terror and fear is the fact that you will never truly be able to tell, that is until something happens and you run the risk of becoming another statistic.