AUSTIN, TEXAS-Netflix plopped a trojan horse in the middle of the festival. The Most Hated Woman in America has all the elements of buzzy true crime dramas, the kind that look so damn appetizing on platforms like Netflix. Ominous and kinda-long title? Check. Gritty Texas backdrop? Check. Seedy motel setting? Check. Famous faces in unflattering hair and makeup? Check.
Unfortunately for this film, which premiered at SXSW on Tuesday, the qualifying event that enables all of the above is a wonky Constitutional crisis. When Most Hated hits Netflix on March 24, people will watch it under the guise that it's high quality drama-recommended if you like The Departed or No Country for Old Men-and they'll walk away feeling like they just did a homework assignment on religious freedom.
On paper, the whole two-movies-in-one thing doesn't sound so bad. Melissa Leo is proudly vulgar and refuses to take anyone's shit as Madalyn Murray O'Hair, an atheistic mid-century mom who didn't want her son feeling forced to say morning prayer in his Baltimore public school. Her case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in her favor, a decision that eventually outlawed prayer in public schools across the country.
O'Hair went on to found the successful nonprofit American Atheists and became the face of the polarizing movement in the United States, growing flush with donations from atheistic Americans in the process. She used her legal knowledge to stash a large reserve of this money offshore, but the wrong person found out, and, at age 76, O'Hair found herself and two of her loved ones kidnapped and extorted inside a motor lodge outside of Austin. Adam Scott, playing hungry San Antonio newspaper reporter Jack Ferguson, is one of the only ones who cares O'Hair is even missing. Which should be a red flag.
While waiting several days for the six-figure wire transfer to come through, we keep going back in time for a history lesson of O'Hair's activism. Civil Rights marches! Expletive-lated sparring with Bible thumpers! Making her case to Johnny Carson! Right down to the fake footage/real footage splicing, the structure is not unlike Forrest Gump, only instead of sitting on a bench making small talk with strangers, O'Hair, her son, and granddaughter are holed up in a dingy motel with an armed ex-con and his lackeys. She repeatedly makes questionable if not outright bad decisions, and the decades reveal her to be a lonely, controlling mother. (She drove her older son, Bill Jr.-played by the perfectly gloomy Vincent Kartheiser of Mad Men-to alcoholism and more or less broke up his marriage.)
Her atheism is alternately hailed as heroic and denigrated as profit-driven. Which creates the serious but uncomfortable question: Ignoring the fact that she's temporarily missing, does anybody care if she even lives or dies?
We never really get a fair answer. This sort of ambiguity and knowing lack of justice added weight to a film like No Country, but in the case of Most Hated, the same elements feel more accidental than artistic. Not to mention the feeling of being drowned in historical homework. Her older son eventually sobered up and is currently working to put prayer back in schools. So, at the very least, that's poetic justice.
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