TIFF 2023 | Woman of the Hour (Anna Kendrick, US) — Special Presentations

By Gabrielle Marceau 

In 1978, serial killer Rodney Alcala was in the middle of a five-year killing spree when he appeared as a contestant on The Dating Game and won. The stranger-than-fiction cautionary tale is deeply unsettling and symbolically rich—the bachelorette is introduced as a tantalizing prize in front of painted childlike flowers, the bachelors are hidden behind a wall, and her innuendo-laden questions practically demand lecherous answers. Alcala’s time on screen barely needs any embellishment—”We’re going to have a great time together, Cheryl,” he says, assuming his victory before the game has begun—but Woman of the Hour isn’t nearly satisfied with what happened. 

In her directorial debut, Anna Kendrick also stars as Cheryl Bradshaw, the contestant who picks Alcala (Daniel Zovatto), here given ample backstory as a struggling actress with a feminist mission. Halfway through the show, she abandons the pre-written questions for leading questions of her own (such as, “What are girls for?”). Kendrick gives herself the role of a crusader who disrupts the phony, sexist spectacle. A certain amount of liberties are expected (and some are welcome, like a chilling joke with a business card that absolutely did not happen), but Woman of the Hour works so hard to connect its critique of Hollywood chauvinism to Alcala’s crime spree, that it steamrolls over the inherent, and more impactful, strangeness of the original taping (just look at Cheryl’s pained smile against Alcala’s Cheshire cat grin.)  

Despite some clumsiness, on its own terms Woman of the Hour is competent, compelling, and deeply stressful. Like most films based on real crimes, the tension isn’t in what will happen to the victims (which we can learn by reading their Wikipedia pages—Alcala’s is a doozy) but what the filmmaker will choose to show you. Kendrick walks the line, taking her time with scenes of Alcala charming his victims (usually by offering to take their photograph) before the inevitable attack. The film captures the tension between the desire to be seen and the dangers of visibility, also the double-edged sword of celebrity (or more accurately here, notoriety). There’s also tension in wanting to see something horrible, even when you’re trying to look away.