One attends a Sundance Midnight screening expecting to be treated to something weird, possibly disturbing. Rarely does one leave feeling comforted. This section is all about surprises though, and that is one of the many words I would use to describe the provocatively titled Bitch.
Marianna Palka’s indie features her as a suburban woman who, after attempting suicide to escape her lying husband (a brilliant Jason Ritter) and insensitive offspring, assumes the mental identity of a vicious dog. This breakdown unravels the already fragile fabric of her family, leaving her work-obsessed husband to pick up the threads – a task to which he does not adapt well. With his traumatized kids and frenzied but determined sister-in-law (Jaime King) at his side, or not, the husband must overcome his selfish ways in order to save his wife and family.
Coming from the SpectreVision team, unveiling their new Company X with this film, one would expect a disturbing and bizarre film – Bitch certainly is that, but its identity is much broader. Palka crafts an atmosphere that shifts between frightening psychosis (the sound design is quite unsettling), domestic comedy, and honest emotion. The concept is outrageous, and Palka lets the audience know this, but she soon switches focus and explores it from the realistic side: a traumatic event for all involved. The cast deftly displays the tragedy at the story’s core, with particularly good turns from King and Ritter. Alongside a beautiful and chaotic score, these performances carry the audience through the tonal shifts with surprising confidence.
The score and sound design deserve their own acclaim. With notes of experimental jazz, mixed with soothing synth, the soundtrack perfectly complements each scene and accounts for the shifting emotion. Likewise, the sound design becomes incredibly visceral – in the opening scene, the pain and fear of Palka’s attempted suicide is palpable, and her snarls later on are genuinely frightening. The assailing soundscapes contradict Palka’s color scheme, which is notably blue and pleasant; what the suburban home is meant to be. The rare instances of yellow lighting are therefore jarring. The sound and visuals display a command over cinema’s sensory aspects that few debut directors can achieve. It all becomes a bit much sometimes, but then again, it’s supposed to be.
Sometimes the chaos overwhelms a powerful moment – for example, the reveal of Palka’s condition is somewhat lost in madcap editing – but a film with so much emotion hardly needs to be technically perfect. It won’t win everyone over; it will probably polarize, as most SpectreVision/Company X films do. This is why these films, like many of the Midnight section premieres, are so much fun – they show us a fresh, insane vision that melts down old tropes and reshapes them into something new. Bitch does this with passion and heart. Palka cares about her art, and it shows. Her frantic, emotional dark comedy is thoroughly original, appropriately bizarre, and surprisingly touching – the kind of unique animal we hope to find at Sundance.