Tired of being treated as indifferently and inhumanly as a family pet, an exhausted suburban wife and mother takes ownership of that status in the most drastic way imaginable — by assuming the identity of a dog herself. As this scenario plays out as strangely and snappishly as might be expected, one could call “Bitch” a one-joke film — except this absurd conceit isn’t really a joke at all. Marianna Palka’s fourth feature is as brash and as blunt as its title, more abrasive than amusing in its snarling takedown of patriarchal family politics. Acted and executed with brute conviction, if not much delicacy, by its writer-director-star, with an excellent foil in Jason Ritter’s boorish, baffled husband, the film feels overstretched in its latter half — with its central metaphor revealing only so many facets before the shock factor begins to pall. Still, “Bitch” is necessarily ugly and angry enough to turn edgier distributors’ heads following its Sundance premiere.
Palka’s film unspooled in the Midnight strand in Park City, which aptly reflects its tonal extremities and eccentricities, though it’s not quite the wild genre entertainment that such a categorization might suggest. The stark severity of its feminist message is present from the opening shot, with overwhelmed mother-of-four Jill (played by Palka herself) shown trying to hang herself from the dining room chandelier — using, in a symbolic detail that could hardly be more pointed, one of her husband’s belts. The failure of her attempt is predictable, as the light fitting comes loose and she crashes woefully to the ground, yet it’s not played even as morbid slapstick. How funny can one desperate woman’s injury in place of death be? “Bitch” is a comedy that occasionally seems to challenge, rather than openly invite, its viewers to laugh, and to consider the implications of their reaction.
The film enters a broader, more mocking comic register as focus shifts to Jill’s callous, clueless husband Bill (Ritter), who’s introduced performing cunnilingus on a co-worker in his white-collar office. If this seems an obvious opening salvo for a male chauvinist slimeball of a character, Palka and Ritter aren’t afraid to stress the point further: Dropping one oily, condescending put-down after another, he’s an outwardly milquetoast monster, so narcissistic and exploitative of his wife’s domestic role that she has to practically shape-shift to get him to notice her. And so she does the day after her hidden suicide attempt, on the morning of a particularly hectic school run, when she bolts to the basement and leaves a bewildered Bill to manage the rest. When she emerges on all fours, naked and growling and perfumed in her own feces, he has more to handle than he bargained for.
From here on out, Bill grows somewhat surprisingly into “Bitch’s” protagonist — albeit far from its hero — as he’s forced to face the bizarrely literalized consequences of his toxic masculinity. It’s not a smooth or gracefully redemptive self-effacement: “Sometimes I just wish my dick was smaller, [then] none of this would have happened,” he wails at one point, determined to make the situation wholly and nonsensically about himself. In one deliberately wince-inducing sequence, played to the grotesque hilt by Ritter, Bill experiences his own involuntary collapse of the self: In visceral protest at the demands of parenting alone, he sinks to the ground in a shrieking tantrum at his children’s school.
If Palka’s role recedes as the film progresses, that’s in line with the film’s perspective on how women are muted and disabled by the patriarchy. (Though it’s not as defeatist as all that: Among the less expected thank-yous in the film’s closing credits, the Scottish-born Palka offers a shout-out to a top-dog feminist icon — Scotland’s current First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.) Still, she plays Jill’s canine transformation with gusto. Hair may not sprout and bones may not contort in werewolfish fashion, but her altered posture, movement, and surrender to sound rather than language are thoroughly unnerving, though d.p. Armando Salas frequently, perhaps unnecessarily, shoots her in tight, claustrophobic close-up, as if to further mask her human form.
For all the bravado behind the movie’s galvanizing idea, however, it begins to run out of steam approximately an hour in. With the film’s gender politics laid candidly on the table, and the symbolic relevance of Jill’s uncanny possession more than clear from the get-go, the premise’s manic fallout doesn’t open up many more new avenues. A fine, testy Jaime King, in particular, doesn’t get enough to do as Jill’s sister, who’s loudly at loggerheads with Bill over the best way to keep the situation, well, on a leash. “Bitch” may have been a sharper instrument as a short film, but there’s something formidable in the blunt chaos Palka has conjured here, technically as well as narratively. Morgan Z. Whirledge’s crashing, carnival-like score, layered with a dense sound mix of booms, bangs, and barks, is quite maddening, and thus perfectly fit for the purpose.