Woman of the Hour, which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival, earns 3.5 stars (out of 4) from Us Weekly movie critic Mara Reinstein.
We already know Anna Kendrick is a talent. For 15 years, the Oscar-nominated actress has flashed her sly comedic strengths in too many movies to list. She turned a cute little ditty into a durable pop hit, for crying aloud!
But with Woman of the Hour — in which she stars and directs — Kendrick outdoes herself by pulling off the deft balancing act of close-your-eyes horror, taut suspense, black comedy and disturbing socio-drama. This is one of the best films of the Toronto International Film Festival as well as one of the most impressive actor-director debuts in recent memory. It’s just that good.
The based-on-a-true-story premise itself is so fascinatingly bizarre that audiences will surely be inclined to do an immediate Google deep-dive and glean all the details. The basic ones: In 1978, a serial killer named Rodney Alcala was a contestant on The Dating Game — a cheeseball show in which three single dudes would sit behind a partition and give playful answers to a bachelorette’s questions in the hopes of a match. Though he had already served jail time for rape and assault at the time and was using his real name, Alcala won over a woman named Cheryl Bradshaw. She never went on the date, and he’d go on to kill more women. The saga would be perversely kitschy if it weren’t so tragic.
With the help of a compelling screenplay, Kendrick uses a non-linear style to crisscross between the filming of the episode and this sinister man’s evil doings throughout the decade and across the country.
Alcala (Daniel Zovatto) has a reasonable face, stringy long hair and darkness behind his eyes. He sells himself as a photographer promising various women modeling opportunities. His M.O.: Seduce them by asking if they’d accompany him for a shoot in the secluded desert, where he brutally attacks them. The scenes aren’t particularly graphic yet deeply uncomfortable to watch. Kendrick zooms in on clenched hands and writhing feet. The fact that Zovatto is a virtual unknown adds to the creepiness.
And then there’s Cheryl (Kendrick), a frustrated aspiring actress and recent Los Angeles transplant ready to go home. Her agent has booked her on The Dating Game so she can “be seen.” Despite her initial reservations, she goes for it.
The show boasts a sunny 70s vibe — yet these scenes also unsettle as Kendrick gets to the heart of the blatant sexism at-hand. In this world, to be seen is to be objectified.
Host Ed Burke (Tony Hale) leers over her in the dressing room and encourages her to be dumb and sexy. But after the first round of inane pre-written questions, she goes rogue and calls the guys out on their B.S. Alcala’s Bachelor No. 3 charms her with his levelheaded responses, and the two are presented with a trip to nearby Carmel.
Meanwhile, an audience member (Nicolette Robinson) recognizes him from an encounter and ID’s him as the man who killed her good friend. She desperately tries to get to a producer, but the male security guard dismisses her.
The actual Dating Game footage is available to queue up on YouTube so the details are easy to fact-check. (The two won tennis lessons instead of a getaway, for starters.) Also, little is known about what really went down between Cheryl and Alcala after the cameras stopped rolling. The two reportedly had a disquieting backstage encounter. Here, the two go for drinks and, in a heart-stopping sequence, he stalks her in the studio parking lot. Though Kendrick doesn’t stray far from her good-girl persona, placing herself amid such terrifying surroundings ramps up the tension.
Indeed, this is a rare example in which dramatic license enhances the story and underlines the point: Even under benign circumstances — rude delivery men on a New York City street, unsolicited flirting in an L.A. bar — women can constantly feel distressed. For evil can lurk anywhere, and a silly game show is no exception. The Dating Game may be a TV relic, but Woman of the Hour should be a must-see in perpetuity.
Woman of the Hour does not yet have a release date.