The logline of a serial killer and rapist taking part in a television dating game show sounds like a high-concept pitch so fabricated it couldn’t possibly be founded in any veracity. Yet, in 1979, Rodney Alcala––whose victims are believed to be as many as 130––was a bachelor on The Dating Game. For her directorial debut, Anna Kendrick expands the 30 minutes of airtime into an inquiry of misogyny and the everyday silencing of women, exploring both Alcala’s shocking murders and the story of a fledging actress hoping for a big break. With a careful threading of humor and horror, it’s an ambitious, slightly strained gamble that Kendrick mostly manages with a formally precise vision and script that doesn’t rely on platitudes.
A photographer and film enthusiast who studied under Roman Polanski at NYU and throws out references to Days of Heaven, Alcala (Daniel Zovatto, in a menacingly chilling performance) woos victims by cajoling them to model for his next shoot. Woman‘s Wyoming-set opening lays out the methodology of his madness, Alcala strangling a victim only to revive her before finishing his unspeakable deed. Ian MacAllister McDonald’s script then takes a sharply disparate perspective leap to Sheryl (Kendrick), an LA newcomer going on humiliating auditions trying to find her break alongside her nice-guy neighbor (Pete Holmes). When the call from her agent comes that she actually booked a less-than-dream role on The Dating Game, little does she know the actual horrors that await.
Shot by Barbarian and The Eyes of My Mother cinematographer Zach Kuperstein, Woman of the Hour boasts an impressively cohesive visual schema that smartly helps bind the disparate tones. Kendrick always finds the right spot to put the camera for maximum effect, whether it’s the way she slowly reveals an out-of-focus Alcala and his camera finding their next victim or setting the stakes of an empty parking lot as Alcala is in pursuit. Sequences of the serial killer carrying out murders are captured with a restrained intensity, one similar to that of an anxious Sheryl feeling the lights glaring down at her when she enters the game show’s stage. The script not only jumps around to different perspectives but in time as well: as we meet Alcala’s previous victims, editors Andy Canny and Lee Haugen often cut right before the most climactic of moments to eke out every last ounce of tension. It’s a bold choice on Kendrick’s part and a boon to the film’s swiftness, though the decision can be a hindrance in fleshing out her characters. There’s the sense she’s more interested in ratcheting-up nerves than getting to know more about Sheryl or the other women first captured in Alcala’s lens.
Given its harrowing premise, one may be curious how comedy weaves into the proceedings, but Kendrick brings deft touches of levity at the opportune moments. Playing to her own strengths of quick-talking wit, Kendrick’s Sheryl starts taking control of the talk-show banter, poking fun at the inanity of the other bachelors while Alcala swoops in with more carefully considered answers. When an audience member (Nicolette Robinson) recognizes Alcala, recalling seeing him on a beach a year prior after her friend was raped and murdered, her pleas––first to her boyfriend, then security at the show––to recognize her fears adds a layer of Kendrick’s scrutiny of the ways women are sidelined. It’s another subplot to add both tension and a dash of modern-day commentary that, while effective, can make it seem this narrative is already bursting at its seams.
With the true story adapted as recently as a few years ago from The Changeling director Peter Medak in the form of a TV movie, Woman of the Hour likely won’t be the last re-telling of this shocking tale, but it’s hard to imagine a more perceptive take than the one Anna Kendrick provides. Even with some sensationalizing of history, her debut is one delivered with an accomplished amount of narrative and formal confidence, heralding the promising beginnings of a new era in her career.
Woman of the Hour premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.