“I’m a terrible cook.”
“You feed your family yeah? Then you’re the world’s greatest cook.” – Exchange between two mothers in “I’m Your Woman.”
When you’re as marvelous and memorable as Rachel Brosnahan is as Mrs. Maisel, there’s a risk of being typecast in what might be the role of a lifetime — but in the skillfully crafted 1970s period piece drama/thriller “I’m Your Woman,” the Highland Park High alum immediately disappears into her role as a disconnected housewife who finds herself on the run with an infant because her career criminal husband was in the worst of places at the worst possible time. It is a wondrous performance to behold, reminiscent of 1970s work by great character actors/leading ladies such as Jill Clayburgh and Ellen Burstyn.
On the surface, “I’m Your Woman” might sound like a conventional crime story, with the main character rousted awake in the middle of the night to go into hiding and try to stay one step ahead of the very bad men with guns who would like a word or two. But imagine if “Goodfellas” had been told primarily from Karen Hill’s P.O.V. as opposed to husband Henry’s. That’s the elevator pitch, as they say, for “I’m Your Woman.”
We’re in the Pittsburgh area in the early 1970s, where Brosnahan’s Jean is lazing about in the backyard in a booze-soaked backyard ennui, listening to “I Wouldn’t Be Surprised” by Bobbi Gentry and lamenting in voice-over about the state of her life: “Eddie and Jean met and fell in love. Eddie and Jean got married and bought a house. Eddie and Jean were going to have a kid but didn’t.”
It’s eventually revealed Jean has had more than one miscarriage and has given up on the dream of having a child — and that’s when her husband Eddie (Bill Heck), who looks a little like 1970s Clint Eastwood and carries a hint of menace about him even when he’s smiling and being ever so polite, comes home with a baby in his arms and tells Jean, “It’s all worked out. He’s our baby.” The stunned Jean asks what his name is, and Eddie replies in the same even tones that it would be up to her, because that’s HER baby. What’s the point in asking any questions, when Jean knows she doesn’t want to know the answers?
Eddie comes and goes as he pleases, meeting with his shady associates upstairs while Jean struggles with making eggs and tending to baby Harry (she just liked that name) in the kitchen, which is bathed in those memorably and borderline terrible 1970s shades of brown and yellow. All is well, if not normal — until the night when Eddie isn’t home, and Eddie’s friend Jimmy comes bursting in the house and tells Jean she’s got to leave with the baby, NOW, and here’s $200,000 and she should give $20,000 to the associate of Eddie’s who’s waiting outside to take her someplace safe.
Eddie remains a pivotal character throughout the story — but as an offscreen presence whose actions have had a ripple effect on multiple lives. “I’m Your Woman” shifts gears and becomes a rain-soaked noir as Jean and Eddie’s former friend and associate Cal (Arinze Kene in a powerful performance) go on the lam, with a crying baby Harry in tow.
With pop tunes such as “Glad and Sorry” by Faces and “Follow” by Richie Havens on the soundtrack and the production design and costume teams doing a first-rate job of keeping us ensconced in a time period where you made calls by landline and it’s not so easy to find someone who is hiding in plain sight, “I’m Your Woman” alternates between quiet, dialogue-driven moments in which Jean learns increasingly darker truths about Eddie, and sudden bursts of violence. Along the way, we meet Cal’s wife, Teri (Marsha Stephanie Blake in a raw and authentic performance), who becomes a pivotal player in the proceedings; like Jean, she has been through the wringer and then some, and like Jean, she has innate survival instincts.
But not everyone is getting out of this story alive or intact. (In one perfectly constructed sequence, Jean has taken residence in a quiet house on a suburban street and is hosting a dinner for nosy but ostensibly harmless neighbor named Evelyn — expertly played by Marceline Hugot — when Evelyn slips and say something that sets off alarm bells for Jean. Is it possible this matronly, mousy lady is a hired killer? No, it can’t be. Or can it?)
Julia Hart directed one of my favorite movies of the 2010s in “Fast Color,” and if you haven’t seen it please do and I believe you’ll thank me. With “I’m Your Woman,” Hart (who co-wrote the nomination-level screenplay with her husband, Jordan Horowitz) solidifies her standing as a filmmaker with something to say and a stylish, literary, visually arresting way of saying it. With spare and precise dialogue that often sounds inspired by Dashiell Hammett, a labyrinthine story with a few heart-stopping twists and pitch-perfect performances by Brosnahan and the supporting cast, this is one of the best movies of the year.