The trailer for Bitch, Marianna Palka’s second film, presents it as a comedy—a dark comedy, but a comedy just the same. Laugh at the father who doesn’t know how to be a parent; giggle at whatever dark magic it was that made the wife snap and turn into a dog. What actually transpires over the course of this film, though, is neither comedy nor horror, but a weird in-between—it’s a valiant effort on Palka’s part, but doesn’t quite land the way it should.
In Bitch, Marianna Palka is Jill, a housewife who, at the movie’s start, is recovering from a failed attempt at death by suicide. Her husband Bill—played with rumpled perfection by Jason Ritter—is an unfeeling, boorish prick. “I’m terrified I’m going to do something,” Jill whispers to him at the start of the film; unsurprisingly, he ignores her, returning to his busy job and his beautiful mistress, while leaving Jill to pick up after their four ungrateful children and their beautiful home. It’s the kind of situation that would make anyone snap, and eventually, Jill does. She disappears one night and returns to her home, snarling, barking, and walking on all fours. She’s a dog—a female dog, a literal bitch—unruly to the point where her children decide that the best thing to do is confine her to the basement, where she spends the majority of the film growling at strangers while covered in her own filth.
Jill’s incapacity throws the family into chaos. Rushing in to save the day is Jill’s sister, Beth, played with a bristling incredulity by Jaime King, who does her best to lend a hand. The doctors consulted eventually tell Bill that his wife needs medical help—but his pride prevents him from letting her get the help that she needs. Life goes on, crippled as it may be, while the woman who has lost herself completely in her own life cedes the narrative to her husband, and remains trapped in the basement like Mr. Rochester’s first wife.
The sudden upheaval of this family’s life creates the dramatic tension in the second half of the movie—but instead of focusing on the titular bitch, the movie turns into a poignant drama about how a bumbling, deadbeat dad turned his life around and learned to manage the very basic elements of his household including figuring out where his children go to school and how to feed them. It’s tricky to figure out where one should place their sympathies. It’s unclear why we don’t pay more attention to the harried, near-suicidal housewife who has been so ignored by her husband that she literally became a dog. Instead, viewers are forced to contend with Bill’s transformation from utter idiot to passable parent, while Jill languishes in the basement.
It’s played as a straight psychological horror movie, with a jittery, jolting soundtrack that suggests jump scares without actually delivering them. Brief moments in the film were akin to a well-executed, high-budget Saturday Night Live skit—one can almost see Kate McKinnon crawling around in a basement smearing poop on the walls, playing up the barking and the snarling for laughs. Instead, Jill remains mostly in the shadows, and Bill keeps the family together, abandoning what could’ve been an interesting premise for something a little more conventional. To Palka’s credit, Jill doesn’t magically turn back to her normal self, but the ending feels a little too neat.
Palka’s transformation from depressed woman, to woman possessed by the spirit of a dog, drives the plot, but interrogating what she’s going through is left to to the imagination. Instead, Bill’s fumblings as a father pulls all the focus. Reinforcing the trope of the dopey dad and then focusing on that man’s growth seems like a strange choice for a movie that is ostensibly about a woman at the very end of her rope. Why lean into the redemption narrative for Bill when focusing on Jill would’ve been much more interesting? We don’t see much of Jill either, though as the bitch in question, one would assume that she’s the star. It’s not that Palka’s heart wasn’t in the right place; it’s just that executing this kind of satire might require a more delicate touch.
Correction: Jezebel misidentified the actor who plays Beth. It is Jaime King, not Jamie Pressly. Jezebel regrets the error.