Marianna Palka is fearless. She wrote, directed and starred in a movie that has her acting like a rabid dog for most of its duration. It’s a bold move, and one that pays off in a big way.
Palka plays Jill Hart, the overworked, exhausted mom to four children. To say these kids are noisy and demanding feels unfair, because all kids are noisy and demanding, but Jill’s kids seem especially so. Maybe that’s because their dad Bill (Jason Ritter) is so completely useless. He’s a well-paid executive working eighteen-hour days, but he’s also cheating on Jill and knows next to nothing about his own children.
When Bitch begins, we’re not watching a woman on the brink of a meltdown. Jill’s already jumped off that ledge. The opening moments have her standing on the dining room table with Bill’s belt around her neck, tied to the elegant chandelier that hangs above her. She steps off the table as a strange-looking dog watches and barks from outside. The chandelier breaks and Jill falls to the floor, weeping. Bill finds her in bed hours later, with his belt still tied around her neck. She asks him, achingly, if she can please attend the two-week painting seminar she so badly needs. She needs this, it’s clear in her voice, on her face, in her words. Bill shrugs her off irritably. It’s her job to watch the kids. She doesn’t get a two-week break. "We need you here."
And that’s it for Jill Hart, the human woman. The next time Bill sees her, she’s naked in the basement, covered in her own shit, barking and growling and snapping her teeth. The endless pressures of running this exhausting family entirely alone have broken her, reduced her to a snarling beast. And that leaves Bill – useless, selfish, philandering Bill – to try running the household and caring for his children for the first time in his life.
What’s surprising about Bitch is that it’s more Bill’s story than Jill’s. Once Jill makes her transformation, the camera’s point of view changes from hers to his. This is, in part, the story of a woman whose only identity has been “mother” for so long that she devolves into another identity entirely, but it’s also the story of a man who has never done a selfless thing in his adult life learning to live for his family. Bill’s journey feels like that of a recent widower, one whose only familial responsibility was to financially provide for his family, and who now must learn to provide in other, more personal ways.
Everyone’s great in Bitch. Though Palka’s role is the most physically courageous – she runs naked and filthy down a residential street on all fours, for instance – Ritter gives an emotionally brave performance. He’s a likable actor who allows himself to be hateful and hated, behaving in a truly despicable way for most of Bitch’s running time, before becoming vulnerable and ultimately redeemed. All of the kids are terrific, in turns terrifying and adorable, and Jaime King is so good as Jill’s sister. She feels both empathy and deep anger toward Bill, the man who failed her sister but who is now utterly at a loss at what to do without her.
Palka directs Bitch on a razor’s edge, the tone and score never quite allowing you to settle in comfortably. Is it a comedy, is it a horror movie, is it a family drama? It’s all of those things, and effectively so, and it’s also something new and uncategorizable. The score (by Morgan z Whirledge) and sound editing (by Jeffrey Alan Jones) are weird and visceral and great, this jolly carnival music mixing with the endless background of the kids’ video games and cartoons, an arrangement designed to make you go bonkers. Bitch won’t give you a moment’s rest, keeping you anxious and alert until its extremely satisfying and quite lovely conclusion.