Review: “Bitch,” Starring Marianna Palka, Jason Ritter, and Jaime King

There are two facial expressions that are secret weapons in Marianna Palka’s film Bitch: Her own glare, which is a determined look that communicates layers upon layers of disgust and resentment, and her costar Jason Ritter’s dopey grin, which he uses as a defense mechanism against knowledge of his own inadequacy. Together, how Palka captures rage and how Ritter demonstrates irresponsibility are the keys to a film that addresses personal and marital dissatisfaction in what is purposefully an off-putting way—with a person, who for years has been treated with a lack of humanity, quitting acting human altogether.

Bitch is written and directed by Palka, who you may recognize from Neflix’s GLOW, and there is some overlap between how that series jumped tonally between physical comedy antics and deep-seated personal anxiety and this film.  On a very surface level, you could smirk at how Jill Hart (Palka), when she assumes the identity of a vicious dog and stops acting human, throws her shit around and intimidates her philandering husband Bill (Ritter) and refuses to engage with her children. She is that bitch.

But consider the scenario for even slightly longer than a few seconds and there is, of course, something profoundly sad about it—about the degree to which Jill is pushed around and the depths to which she’ll plunge to exert even any semblance of control over her life. Her kids yell at her and take her for granted. Her husband simultaneously ignores and belittles her. When the film opens with a scene of Jill trying to hang herself from the dining room chandelier in their upper-class home, you know things are already pretty damn dark.

The premise of Bitch is pretty straightforward, and the film isn’t necessarily that surprising narratively once you accept the basic idea that Jill would rather scramble around her basement’s home naked, defecating and urinating freely, then listen to her husband’s lies or her children’s whining any longer (and I don’t blame her, because they are all initially terrible). What the plot does when Jill’s storyline is fairly contained is switch to Ritter as Bill, who is your typically awful husband who uses his demanding, well-paying job as a way to totally disengage from his children and abuse his wife. Ritter is all zeal, from how he collapses in an elementary school playground after having to spend a morning with his four children (the horror!) to the self-righteous way he mocks a doctor (a woman, of course) who suggests that Jill would benefit from psychiatric care. It’s hard to imagine another actor with Ritter’s unique combination of affability and smugness who would work as well as Bill, and although the film leans on his character more than you would expect, he can handle it.

As a foil to Bill, Jaime King as Jill’s sister Beth is a grounding presence; her increasing, barely contained frustration with her brother-in-law serves as a reflection of our own audience experience. It’s her reaction that the film uses to play with horror tropes; in a scene where Beth tries to remind Jill of their shared childhood, the use of camera angles and framing makes the confrontation feel more like something out of a zombie film than a family drama. It’s an effective switch-up that keeps Jill mysterious and unknowable.

Still, it’s a little disappointing how cut-and-dry the film gets toward the end, and how tidily—and somewhat expectedly—the narrative deconstructs the components of an upper-class suburban life to signify true happiness. And how Jill’s transformation is ultimately an impetus for Bill’s realization of how to be a better father and a better husband is a little disingenuous, too, since it seems to stymie her own character development at the expense of Bill’s.

Nevertheless, Bitch is darkly funny and often oddly satisfying, and how perfectly Palka and Ritter understand their roles goes a long way. The film could have skewed a bit more horror or a bit more comedy, but the family-drama lane it chooses isn’t bad either.