By: Debbie Wang
Some people can’t act through a wet paper bag. Melissa Leo can act her way through anything, including a black cloth hood put on over her head in a kidnapping scene. But all the *acting* in the world can’t save this film. Netflix’s The Most Hated Woman in America, which had its world premiere at SXSW, fails to turn the sensationalized story of Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s life into anything remotely interesting.
How can someone so controversial to be given the title of The Most Hated Woman in America not have an equally fascinating biopic? That’s the question that begs to be asked to director Tommy O’Haver. Let’s break it down. Murray O’Hair’s lawsuit to end official Bible-reading in American public schools that ended up in front of the Supreme Court? Unprecedented. Her rise to infamy that included her founding the American Atheists and becoming the organization’s president? Provocative. Her falling out with her oldest son? Intriguing. Her eventual kidnapping and murder? Absolutely dramatic.
Yet, in the 91 minutes of O’Haver’s film, none of those monumental moments in her life were really explored appropriately. We’re teased with glimpses into all of these situations. Like a smorgasbord of Costco-sized samples, the major milestones of Murray O’Hair come one after another and we never get the chance to fully appreciate what we’re getting a taste of. The amuse-bouches of different points in Murray O’Hair’s life never amount to anything substantial enough to curb the hunger to know more about this controversial American figure.
The lack of any sort of stable plot line or attempt to explore parts of her life in depth is in part due to the way the film was edited. Jumping back and forth between past (the growth of American Atheists) and present (the kidnapping), each flashback scene is too short to build tension, and each scene with the kidnappers too short to allow the viewers to come to their own conclusions about how they should feel. You never get a chance to process what is happening in the scene prior before the editors switch to a different point in the timeline and because of this, you are unable to fill in any missing gaps in the timeline that aren’t shown in the film.
Obviously, it was never the filmmakers intention to make a disjointed and convoluted biopic. But it’s almost fitting that the film depicting the life of a sketchy activist never quite makes the viewer feel all that comfortable either.
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