If you watch enough crime pictures you’re familiar with the obligatory scene roughly three-quarters into the movie when the women are sent away. A lot of times they’re stashed in a safe house run by some friendly cronies we’ve met earlier in the film, or the hero will tell his girlfriend to go stay at her sister’s, typically giving a big speech about how he can’t let her be a part of what’s about to happen next. We almost never hear another word about these women. They’ve served their story purpose and must be dismissed so that the action can begin in earnest.
“I’m Your Woman,” a thoughtful, if not entirely successful, new thriller from director Julia Hart, flips this formula in a provocative way. It’s a 1970s crime picture told from the POV of the gun moll, a character continually cast to the side and kept in the dark. The movie stars Rachel Brosnahan (of Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”) as Jean, the pouty, none-too-bright wife of Bill Heck’s movie-star handsome gangster, Eddie. Jean doesn’t ask many questions about what her husband does for a living, not even when he brings home a newborn baby and announces that it’s “theirs” now. An early scene explaining their relationship inverts the famous final shot of “The Godfather,” so that when Eddie closes the door to do business with his buddies, we and the camera stay in the kitchen with Jean.
He’s done something really bad this time — though we’re not told exactly what — and Eddie’s panicked partners pound on the door in the middle of the night, rushing Jean and her baby to a motel with a big bag of cash. Men are coming for Jean. Maybe they think she knows more than she does, or maybe they think they can use her and the baby to get to Eddie. Either way, they’re bad news. She’s assigned a bodyguard, an old acquaintance named Cal (Arinzé Kene) who owes Eddie a favor. Luckily, he’s good with babies, because Jean sure isn’t. They hit the road and try to lay low for a while, but unfortunately, this is a time and place where a Black man traveling with a white woman attracts the wrong kind of attention.
There’s a massive mob war raging in the city that would be the main focus of just about any other movie, but “I’m Your Woman” stays out in the sticks with the characters so often ignored in these stories. The gangster’s girlfriend and the loyal Black sidekick are typically the two most disposable figures in pulp fiction, yet in this movie they’re our protagonists. Director Hart — who wrote the screenplay and produced the picture with her husband Jordan Horowitz — has said she got the idea for “I’m Your Woman” after wondering what happened to Robert Mitchum’s wife at the end of “The Friends of Eddie Coyle.” It’s really a brilliant concept for a film, forcing viewers to ask ourselves all sorts of important and uncomfortable questions about who we gravitate to at the center of our stories and why.
If only the film’s execution were half as exciting as its ideas. For all its admirable qualities, “I’m Your Woman” suffers from the same molasses-drip pacing that plagued Hart and Horowitz’s oddball 2018 sci-fi saga “Fast Color.” It’s a delicate dance, keeping the audience in the dark. Screen time moves at a crawl when you’re confused, and there’s only so long before “intriguing” becomes “frustrating” and then finally just “annoying.” It also doesn’t help that most viewers will be considerably quicker on the uptake than Jean, a character who can be exasperating even under the best of circumstances.
An aesthetic bugbear of mine that I really need to work on is the use of digital video in period pieces. “I’m Your Woman” boasts a great, gaudy 1970s production design out of an old-school exploitation film, but with the creamy visual sheen of contemporary television dramas. I can’t help but find it distracting, especially in a case like this when the movie is intentionally mimicking and commenting on older movies. Our ideas of certain eras are imprinted by the textures of their popular culture, so seeing the 1970s in digital feels weird to me for the same reason we tend to imagine WWII as being in black-and-white.
There is one magnificent bit of staging I must mention, late in the film when Jean finds herself in the center of a machine gun massacre at a disco nightclub owned by one of Eddie’s old cohorts. It’s a melee of running, screaming revelers and unknown gunmen barreling into back rooms. But the sequence is shot subjectively, from the protagonist’s limited point-of-view, a lot of it while she’s crouched on the floor of a phone booth. We’ve seen a thousand of these kinds of scenes but never from such angles, and in those moments, “I’m Your Woman” finally fulfills its promise of showing us a familiar story from a fresh perspective.
“I’m Your Woman” starts streaming on Amazon Prime Video this Friday, Dec. 11.