A few surprising things happen, early on, in I’m Your Woman, a 1970s-set neo-noir crime thriller from director Julia Hart. (As in her excellent and equally eccentric 2018 film Fast Color, about ordinary people with superpowers, Hart co-wrote the screenplay with her husband, Jordan Horowitz.)
Jean, a naive and childless suburban housewife played by the Emmy-winning actress Rachel Brosnahan of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, welcomes her husband, Eddie, home one evening to discover he’s got a baby in his arms. She’s not sure where the child came from, but Eddie (Bill Heck) assures her that he’s taken care of everything. Considering that Eddie is a career criminal — a thief, as far as Jean knows — his nonexplanation isn’t terribly comforting. Still, she accepts it. Jean is used to defining herself around her husband.
Shortly thereafter, Jean learns a thing or two more when a guy named Jimmy (Jarrod DiGiorgi) shows up: There’s a shoe box filled with $200,000 in cash in her bedroom closet, and Eddie isn’t simply a thief. He’s just killed the boss (not his first murder, either) and is now on the lam.
All of these things, coming in rapid succession, are mildly startling — more so to Jean than to those of us who are used to plot twists. But the true curveball comes in the fact that the film doesn’t center on Eddie at all, or even on Cal (Arziné Kene), an old co-worker of Jean’s husband who’s sent by Eddie to protect her from the inevitable mobsters who figure Jean knows where Eddie’s hiding.
In a more conventional telling, this might have been a story about Eddie. Heck is a fine actor (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), but we don’t actually see him again after the first five minutes. Alternatively, it could easily have been a story about the relationship that develops between Cal and Jean.
Admittedly, there’s a bit of that latter energy here, and the relationship dynamic of these two characters is subtly limned by Hart and Horowitz’s sensitive screenplay, as well as by Brosnahan and Kene’s underplayed performances. But soon enough, after Cal has set Jean up in a remote cabin — where Cal’s wife, son and grandfather (Marsha Stephanie Blake, De’Mauri Parks and Frankie Faison) soon join her — Cal also disappears.
This ignites the main action of I’m Your Woman, whose very title — suggesting the efforts of a loyal wife, or wives, to save their husbands — slyly subverts genre expectations. The question of whose woman Jean is, or will become, hangs in the air, and the answer isn’t what you might expect.
For much of the film’s first half, the baby cries inconsolably, which is one way — and not a pleasant one — of ginning up tension. But the narrative eventually gains a grittier, and far more interesting, kind of traction, as Jean and Cal’s wife, Teri, grab the focus of the story, and hold it. In the process, the film becomes a parable of motherhood and female friendship, in the guise of a shoot-’em-up.
I’m Your Woman isn’t so much off-kilter as it is ballasted by a different, perhaps lower center of gravity. The title sounds exploitative — perhaps even silly — but the tale it spins is one of power and, ultimately, of coming unexpectedly, satisfyingly, into one’s own.
I’m Your Woman *** (out of four)
Directed by: Julia Hart with Rachel Brosnahan, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Arinzé Kene.
Available on: Amazon Prime Video
Run time: 2 hours.