By Andrea Thompson
The funny thing about “I’m Your Woman” is how quickly it sums up its own, overly familiar premise, then pulls the rug right out from under it in the first few minutes. It’ll become a pattern.
Jean (a nearly unrecognizable Rachel Brosnahan) is another desperate housewife in another upper middle class home in the 70s, longing for some purpose while her husband Eddie (Bill Heck) is away all day. But right after spelling out her problem with no name, “I’m Your Woman” changes things up when Eddie pulls an especially shrewd move and brings home a baby so his wife will have something to do.
The thing is, it works. Once Jean gets over her initial shock and hesitation, she and the newfound son she names Harry get along famously, quickly bonding so well that the only sign she isn’t his biological mother, namely the constant presence of bottle formula, comes as something of a surprising reminder. And her husband Eddie seems nice enough for a criminal and a chauvinist.
That Jean’s willfully ignorant bliss will be interrupted is obligatory. The phone calls aren’t enough to physically (and metaphorically) wake her up one fateful night, but the pounding at the door is too insistent to ignore, and Jean quickly finds herself on the run and on her own for the first time. Well, most of the time she has Cal (Arinzé Kene), an old friend of her husband’s, by her side, but he also has the eyes of a man whose time on the illegal side of things has taken a toll, far too much for him to be considered heroic by anyone’s standards.
Director Julia Hart, who most famously proved that a quiet approach didn’t mean a dull one in “Fast Color,” knows the value of stillness, utilizing sound to a greater, if very different degree than even the “Quiet Place” films. To John Krasinski’s franchise, sound was part of the plot, but for Hart it’s part of her craft. In the intentionally bland settings where Jean goes to ground, which in more cheerful lighting wouldn’t look too out of place in a romcom, opening closet doors, attempting to make a phone call – each necessary movement sounds as loud as thunder, especially when your would-be murderer may well be in the next room.
In such a state of high alert, the term desperate housewife takes on a whole new meaning. The very ordinariness of Jean’s surroundings becomes part of the unseen forces hunting her, threatening to not just come apart at any second, but actively betray her to her pursuers, with even her protectors revealing themselves as lethal killers who are willing to sacrifice potentially innocent people for their own survival. Protection doesn’t mean safety in this world, where brutality isn’t gritty so much as matter-of-fact, with ruthlessness naturally following. Jean believed she knew enough about her husband’s activities to avoid the details, but it’s one of many harsh awakenings that the man she thought was just a thief is also a killer who is directly responsible for her walk on the razor’s edge.
While Cal and the rest of his family are far more acquainted with the cruelty of the world and are willing to shield her and instruct her in it for reasons of their own, Jean thankfully needs no lessons in how to treat them like human beings, and the film also doesn’t try to be colorblind, with a random police officer demonstrating that it isn’t only the criminal underworld that could be their undoing.
Jean’s growing bond with Cal’s wife Teri (Marsha Stephanie Blake), a force unto herself who could’ve easily been the lead, is also one of the most impressive examples of this film’s grace under pressure. Despite their quiet connection, “I’m Your Woman” remains aware of how race is a factor despite their commonalities, with Teri nearly outshining Jean, especially after they team up to see if they can help their men make it out alive.
It’s still a radical prospect to build an entire film about a character who would normally spend the entire film quivering in fear in the most ineffective way possible, and that’s if she was fortunate enough to avoid tragically dying so the male hero could begin his journey. Jean’s and later, hers and Teri’s, is sometimes less interesting for their time on the periphery, but the film’s firm commitment to its outsider status also strips this world of any remaining glamour, and the stakes not only feel higher, it’s far more interesting for it.