Netflix have never been as consistent with the quality of their film output as they have with their television content. Quite frankly, in a world of Stranger Things, Orange Is The New Black, Making A Murderer and (the latest craze) 13 Reasons Why, no example of pinnacle film-making from the streaming giant even approaches their television oeuvre. Netflix seem settled in supplying an onslaught of Adam Sandler comedies and middling documentaries, instead of attempting to emulate the ground-breaking success of the television programming they produce.
Yet to hit their stride, you wish for something more satisfying with each and every new original addition into their ever-evolving library – but The Most Hated Woman in America is not the film to change that trend. Seemingly comfortable in doing so, the biopic continues to align itself alongside the other mediocre, passable but uninspiring flicks that have plagued the film section of their library for some time now.
Tommy O’Haver’s biopic dramatises the story of Madelyn Murray O’Hair (Melissa Leo), whose atheist activism led to a ruling from the Supreme Court, banning official public school Bible readings across the country. Controversial and scandalous, the move earned her the nickname of the most hated women in America. We join her story and fight at various points throughout her media career: from the days before the start of her first campaigns and through the increasing hostility and hatred towards her subsequent activities. Her rocky career culminates in her subsequent kidnapping, instigating the launch of an investigation into her disappearance.
Leo stars alongside a cast impressive on paper, including Peter Fonda, Sally Kirkland, Josh Lucas, Adam Scott, Juno Temple and Vincent Kartheiser. Unfortunately though, few of them deliver performances of enough substance to get this middle-of-the-road biopic off the ground and it never lives up to the intrigue of the contentious woman and her story at the heart of the film.
Tonal, Genre, Narrative Whiplash
Perhaps the most damning element for The Most Hated Woman in America is the narrative inconsistency. Ricocheting between plots strands and settings so uncontrollably, and dipping in and out of timelines so regularly, the biopic emerges unpolished, delivering a product of uncertainty and unsophistication. At no time steady, it becomes lumbered with a real clash of tones, causing some severe tonal whiplash on more than a handful of occasions. It is so often experimenting with genres that the film-makers have little time to pay close attention to any of them individually, meaning it fails to master even one of them to the best of the filmmaker’s ability.
Melodramatic is the film’s mapping of Madelyn’s aimless existence to begin with, half-heartedly delivering an entirely perfunctory decision to humanise her, yielding decidedly mixed results. Later, Madelyn’s intensifying career dominance infuses some effective black-comedy into the mix, providing some of the sharpest scenes by borrowing direct quotes from the magnetic woman herself.
Elsewhere, the largely unnecessary investigation blends mystery into the mix, falling terribly flat despite its aim to offer some revolutionary to the film. Her kidnapping, blisteringly intense at moments, is more of a straight up crime-thriller, atmospheric and absorbing, offering some of the stronger moments of the piece. As you can tell, genres are flying around endless, manufacturing a genuinely exhausting watch.
Combining multiple genres is not a new practise in cinema and even more films are excelling – shining even – by merging both complimentary and contrasting genres into one product. However, The Most Hated Woman in America is absent of the sophistication or know-how, portraying itself as an amateur attempt without the finesse. It is like a Lifetime movie you discover on the telly on a rainy day, or an anthology of different films unconnected beside the same actress appearing in each.
It is a strained effort to infuse all of the themes and genres in play; evidently, the script struggles to handle it. We are stranded with a jarring amalgamation of ideas, all thrown at the wall to diversify the end product. Positives, including the television appearances and hostage sequences, are diluted by the mediocracy of the other moments that surrounded it. Simultaneously trying to juggle multiple themes and tones causes the film to crumble, with a more refined and structure biopic lurking somewhere beneath the many, many layers.
Admittedly, when the film settles down for more than five minutes, we recognise the great film it could have been. For example, the final ten minutes are scorching and brimming with a genuine intensity and power, taking a turn that although conspicuous for those more familiar with the story, manages to surprise and shock those unaware and distant.
It is a film of a astonishing variance in quality and while it never really ascends beyond decent, it rarely descends into something completely unsalvageable. In all honesty, it is more frustrating than actively bad. It is simply an inability to settle down – in terms of genre, tone and narrative – that leads to the film’s awkward, misguided pacing that manifests into the film’s most glaring issue.
Elevated Performances Bolsters The Mediocracy
Melissa Leo is unmistakably terrific as a character as divisive as she is determined, delivering a controlled and ferocious performance that expertly balances the opposing opinions of her activism. Whether you think she is a loathsome individual hell-bent on destroying free speech or an activist rightly protesting a societal injustice and unfairness, it is a justly considered and enlightening performance from Leo.
She injects elements of each viewpoint into the many shades of Madelyn Murray O’Hair expertly, enlightening those unfamiliar with the discordant response she provoked efficiently. A number of the supporting performances are sufficient but the lacklustre characters struggle to get off the ground, defined wholly by their interactions with O’Hair and rarely in their own right.
Temple, Scott and Lucas, in particular, handle their character beats well (when they are afforded these developments, that is) but the rising tide of only-adequate content threatens to strand them completely. Even when the script and execution waver, and the audience’s interest begins to drift, Leo’s firecracker performance saves the day. You appreciate her talent tenfold in these slower moments, most notably the monotonous investigation scenes, redundant based on their inability to provide any new or enlightening information.
Where director and co-writer Tommy O’Haver succeeds is with the remarkable amount of self-control and restraint he demonstrates through the presentation of O’Hair. He refuses to lionise or demonise the controversial character, preventing his opinion from disturbing proceedings too much, even when his admiration for her trailblazing antics seeps into the frame.
He is a fine director, demonstrated in some parts (the absorbing kidnapping and hostage elements) more so than others (the lacklustre, visually and narratively, investigation) but becomes stuck with the writing; his strategy to deliver a balanced and nuanced representation of the character is deft but ultimately winds up aimless.
His script, co-written with Irene Turner, is strongest when relying on annals and interview segments, rather than its own dialogue. Incorporating the archive footage is seamless addition and generally well-executed, merged into the main body of the film effective and helping to fortify the era nicely, aided further by some solid production design and choices.
Despite one featuring in the very title, The Most Hated Woman in America rarely approaches any other superlatives in its entire 91 minute runtime. Beyond Leo’s committed and reliably compelling star turn as one of recent history’s most intriguing and divisive personalities, the rest of the film simply ticks by. It appears chained to the path of mediocracy, as is now typical with Netflix’s original films. Its success lies in Leo’s performance and the woman she embellishes, whose unbelievable story is one that deserves to be told with more enthusiasm than this film portrays.
Mainly due to a lack of sophistication in regards to the writing and the conventional biopic tropes that are out in force, The Most Hated Woman in America cannot but thoroughly recommended or dismissed; in essence, this is a recommended watch if, like myself, you know very little about the central figure. But, for those looking for something with a little more substance, maybe skip over this one…
What did you think of The Most Hated Woman in America? Are you impressed with Netflix’s original film content and where does this one rank for you?
The Most Hated Woman in America is available to stream on Netflix now.