I should have known better than to come to a movie like Bitch with any kind of expectations. Having read about the broad strokes of the plot before sitting down for my viewing of the genre-evading film at the Sundance Film Festival, I brought with me assumptions about what tone it might strike, where the plot could go, and how the film would utilize its central metaphor. Sure enough, Bitch rejected all my presumptions, something I can’t help but applaud even if I found myself vexed by many of its creative choices. In fact, while I couldn’t very well say that the film is entirely successful in the maneuvering of these choices, the choices themselves at the very least deserve a nod of esteem. Or, more appropriately, a pat on the head.
Yes, this is the movie about a woman who turns into a dog. Long-suffering housewife and mother of four Jill Hart ( Marianna Palka) incurs one too many displays of ingratitude from her sleazebag husband Bill ( Jason Ritter) and collective of bratty children and snaps, adopting the psyche of a snarling, teeth-gnashing canine. “So what do we do about this?” is the question on the minds of not only the family members, but also writer/director Palka. If nothing else, they all at least have interesting ideas.Instantly upon the transformation, Bitch’s narrative goes haywire, thrusting the overwhelmed and underqualified Ritter on a wild goose chase to keep up the normalcy at home and at work. Meanwhile, Jill’s sister ( Jamie King) enters the picture to help out with the kids, adding an unexpected and occasionally frustrating asterisk to the gender-themed discussion the film is apparently interested in having.
This is just one of the many thematic endeavors that Bitch seems to short-sell. We’re told a few things about Bill that seem to contradict each other—he’s a workaholic who defines himself by his job, but is infamous for neglecting staff meetings and is on thin ice with his boss even before being saddled with the additional stressor of Jill’s transformation. The sloppy margins of Bill’s character cater to the haziness of whatever Bitch has set out to say and do.
Ritter shoulders the bulk of the film’s material as Bill wrestles with how (and, more importantly, how not) to approach the basement-confined Jill. That the story becomes his, after setting up Jill as its emotional beacon, is perhaps its biggest curiosity, as we’re left, after being introduced so intimately to all the pain affecting Palka’s long suffering character, wondering what exactly is going on in her head through all this. But while the emotionality at the center of Bitch may suffer from its evasion of Jill, its comedy and energy benefit. It’s a lot of fun to watch Ritter’s garden-variety jackass careen around his physical and mental space, fraying at the seams.
Still, Bitch is so clearly interested in mining its premise for more than macabre cackles. Glimmers of the torment inside the Hart children, especially the eldest daughter (Brighton Sharbino), become a big priority as Bill contends with countless snowballing conflicts, most of all his own narcissistic obsession with saving face. The shocking amount of irons in Bitch’s fire come at the cost of thorough exploration of any given one; what’s left is not so much an effective story, but instead a general showcase of stylized psychological mayhem.
But that’s still something. There is never really a dull moment in Bitch, even if a good deal of its momentum is fueled by vexation—that feeling sticks with you after viewing, I can promise. Though I’m still hard pressed to define the film’s themes or direction, I can’t say that the experience of watching it roll around in the dirt didn’t come with ample intrigue.
Rating: 3 out of 5 burritos
Images: Sundance Institute
Michael Arbeiter is the East Coast Editor of Nerdist. Find him on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter.