With its clever structure and sobering story, Woman of the Hour shows director Anna Kendrick is just as sharp behind the camera as she is in front of it.
I’ve always considered Anna Kendrick to be an undervalued talent, having loved her films like Pitch Perfect, The Accountant, this year’s Self Reliance, and especially A Simple Favor. Any film she’s in that doesn’t have the word “Twilight” in its name will at least make me curious. That curiosity doubled when I learned that, much like her Self Reliance costar Jake Johnston, she’s stepping into the director’s chair herself for her next film, Woman of the Hour. (Though it would’ve been even better if Johnston had returned the favor by acting in this.) On top of that, she’s handling a real-life story that I’ve known about for years and always found morbidly fascinating.
Woman of the Hour chronicles an infamous 1978 episode of the classic game show The Dating Game, in which serial killer Rodney Alcala (Daniel Zovatto) appeared as a contestant. He ended up winning and going out with bachelorette and aspiring actress Cheryl Bradshaw (Kendrick) before inexplicably resuming his horrible spree afterwards. And people say online dating can be dangerous. The film is centered mainly around the episode, but it also follows Cheryl and Alcala separately immediately before and after.
When I tell this story to someone, they usually respond with an uncomfortable acknowledgement of how scary it is, but also with a bit laughter. Because, let’s face it, this sounds so ridiculous and revolves around something so silly like a dating game show, that just saying it sounds at least somewhat darkly funny. But when you spend more than two seconds thinking about it, you obviously realize that the whole mess is no laughing matter, especially the more you actually look into Alcala’s history, what he does, and how he was even able to be there in the first place. So, when going into Woman of the Hour, I was most curious about how the tone would be handled.
As it turns out, Anna Kendrick doesn’t beat around the bush or try to sugarcoat the story with almost any sort of playfulness. From the very first scene, Woman of the Hour plays like a quiet, genuinely disturbing thriller as we’re introduced to Alcala, and every time he’s on screen is equally unpleasant to watch. The film is about him as much as it’s about Cheryl, and Daniel Zovatto brings out the creeping menace that’s always lurking just beneath the surface when he’s coaxing his victims in.
We don’t see Alcala’s crimes in every bit of gruesome detail, but we see him in action while performing them with Kendrick’s lingering, claustrophobic angles giving us nowhere to hide. I don’t think a lot of people will be expecting someone as outwardly upbeat as Anna Kendrick to have brought such a mean, gruesome bite to her first directing effort, to a point where I think she’d crush it if she ever made a pure horror film. There’s one wide shot with Alcala just standing in the background, silently creeping along in the shadows, that’s so visually unnerving that I actually reeled back in my seat. When you see it, you’ll know what I’m referring to.
On the other end, Kendrick brings her usual charm and vulnerability as Cheryl tries to navigate the shifty, misogynistic landscape of trying to make it as a star. You feel how she has depressingly few people to turn to but still tries to pave her way forward, putting herself through both The Dating Game and the broader Hollywood game when no other path is available. I never watched or paid much attention to The Dating Game – give me Family Feud and its slew of “good answers” any day – but it occurred to me while watching Woman of the Hour how low-key debilitating it may be when you think about it.
I even recently watched footage of the actual episode with Cheryl and Alcala, and her cartoonishly bubbly, seemingly airheaded way of carrying herself is almost identical to how the Cheryl of this movie acts. But here, it’s presented as a result of her being told to tone down her intelligence, and I really wouldn’t be shocked if that’s what actually happened to Cheryl and tons of the other women who went on the show. However much of the episode’s in-film shenanigans were made up for the movie, that aspect in particular feels like it rings true and captures the spirit of what women in showbusiness have had to go through.
But the most disturbing part of watching the game show portion of the story is clearly the fact that a serial killer is there, on national television, just allowed to compete for a date with who could easily be his next victim. Woman of the Hour highlights this heinous reality in an extremely clever way: the narrative is nonlinear. Before we’re shown Cheryl actually going on The Dating Game, we’ve already seen Alcala’s terrible actions both before and after that event. Which means even if you know nothing about Alcala initially, the film still makes it clear early on that his reign of terror was not brought to a halt soon after the game show episode aired.
The painfully obvious question then starts raging in your head: “How the hell was this guy not caught?!” The injustice of him showing himself and facing no consequences makes every second of watching him on the game show that much more infuriating, especially when the film keeps cutting back to him doing so many more horrible things. There’s no foreshadowing on the film’s part that he’s even on the show either, making the reveal a complete and utter shock to those who may somehow go into Woman of the Hour totally out of the know. That is so damn smart and adds so much tension in regards to whether Cheryl is even going to make it out okay.
Even when Cheryl tries to embrace the silliness of her position and take control of the moment as something fun for her, you know that it’s all futile because the product of a much darker, much more ignorant system has infected everything and will ultimately strip away what little benefit the experience could have brought her. And even when you think the film will then end with the slightest bit of a silver lining in its resolution, it closes out with a devastating gut punch that highlights everything this one snapshot of time was screaming at us.
Granted, it’s clearly a somewhat fictionalized snapshot of time. Like I said, I think a lot of scenarios within the Dating Game episode are fictional, as well as the chunks of Cheryl’s personal life that we see. But the spirit and essential message of what needs to be shown is at least still there. Nicolette Robinson plays a character whose loved one was murdered by Alcala. As far as I could find, this character was made up for this movie, but she still works as the more explicit mouthpiece for the anger and fear that likely inspired Kendrick to make the film in the first place. The only part of Woman of the Hour that I wasn’t big on is Dan Romer and Mike Tuccillo’s score. It’s decent and suitably menacing, but it’s overused in spots where silence would have spoken much more loudly.
In an ideal world, Woman of the Hour would be able to play to audiences who know nothing about Alcala or his Dating Game appearance … actually, in an ideal world, Alcala would have never existed and we wouldn’t need movies like this at all. Point being, the reveals through the film’s structure would baffle anyone going in blind, in all the ways we should be baffled by what the film says about what people can get away with. Even as someone who did know, Woman of the Hour’s cleverly told story has been a very sobering refresher of how screwed up the world could be in its time period, and how much of that still permeates today. No punches are pulled here, and Anna Kendrick proves herself to be just as sharp behind the camera as she is in front of it.
Woman of the Hour premiered at TIFF 2023 on September 8, 2023. Read our list of films to watch at the 2023 Toronto Film Festival!