Courtesy of TIFF
In the expansive Wyoming desert circa 1977, a young woman poses for photographer Rodney Alcala (Daniel Zovatto), and our first glimpse of her is via his camera lens. It’s an ostensibly unassuming image, and yet it’s one that speaks pointedly to the gender-specific issues (of sight, beauty, performance and self-worth) at the heart of Woman of the Hour. This film, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, is director/star Anna Kendrick’s compact and cutting portrait of Rodney, who became infamous for appearing on The Dating Game while in the midst of a years-long rape and murder spree. A true-crime thriller that also operates as a damning commentary on societal misogyny—especially in Hollywood—it’s as chillingly sharp and canny as its deranged fiend.
Kendrick exhibits astute directorial instincts from the opening moments of Woman of the Hour, when Rodney approaches his model to sensitively console her over recent heartbreak, strokes her hair and neck, and then twice tries to put his hand around her throat—an act that causes her to withdraw, stare at Rodney and down the hill, and briefly consider her situation as a defenseless woman with a stranger in the godforsaken middle of nowhere. It’s a momentary pause before the brutality, and an early sign that Kendrick cares about her characters as more than merely pawns on a bloody chessboard. Moreover, it demonstrates her preoccupation with the unspoken but powerfully felt dynamics that govern relationships between men and women, especially when it comes to the former’s pressure-filled demands (for sex, warmth, companionship, acquiescence) and the latter’s feeling that they’re obligated to cater to those needs.
Rodney’s reign of terror is presented episodically in Woman of the Hour, be it in Wyoming, California, or Los Angeles, where he temporarily worked at the Los Angeles Times and, in the film, attempts to lure a young gay colleague to the beach, only to be thwarted by a police interview that makes everyone extremely wary of him. Concurrently, it picks up with aspiring actress Cheryl Bradshaw (Kendrick) as she suffers through another failed audition, this time with two casting directors who care more about discussing movies than watching her. The only thing they are concerned about is whether Cheryl will do nudity, and when she says no, one of them opines (about her breasts), “I’m sure they’re fine.” Sexism is alive and well in the 1978 West Coast entertainment industry, where—even more than in everyday American life—women are expected to adhere to certain objectifying standards of beauty and behavior.