Before watching The Most Hated Woman in America I had no idea who Madalyn Murray O’Hair was. Perhaps that’s because her infamy peaked several years before several years before I was born. Perhaps it’s because I’m an idiot. I’ll let you decide.
If you too were unfamiliar with Murray O’Hair’s life’s work, what you need to know is she was the founder of the American Atheists association. She began her activism in the 60’s when she successfully sued her son’s school district to have compulsory prayer removed. Murray parlayed this success into a career as a brash and outspoken proponent of atheism and a defender of the First Amendment.
So let’s discuss her biopic. *SPOILERS BEGIN NOW*
This film does several things well. Among them are the opening scene. The film opens with Murray O’Hair, her son Garth, and her granddaughter Robin sitting together on a bed with their hands tied and bags over their head. They have been kidnaped. The opening scene successfully establishes the personality of Murray O’Hair as she seemingly fearlessly cusses at and sasses her captors despite the fact that she has no real power and in fact doesn’t even know who they are. The scene is punctuated by extended silences where all we hear in O’Hair and her family breathing heavily underneath their hoods. The scene ends with the reveal of our villain- a heavy smoking man who, given the character’s reaction upon seeing his face, has a history with O’Hair and her organization.
The rest of the film jumps around through time. We see scenes of Murray O’Hair’s earlier life and during beginning of her activism. We see the forming of American Atheists, and we see her rise to prominence as one of the most controversial figures in modern American history. All of this happens non-linearly and we the audience are left to fill in the puzzle pieces of the story and try to figure out what exactly led to the kidnapping we are also watching unfold.
When this form of nonlinear narrative is done well (see Memento), it can be not only interesting to watch, but an extremely effective way to tell a story. The Most Hated Woman in America was unable to successfully accomplish this however.
Throughout the film we see several snippets of the life of Murray O’Hair, but it never feels like we get the full story. None of her character traits are fully developed, and in fact, almost none of the character’s motivations are fully developed.
The clearest example of this was the motivation of Murray O’Hair’s kidnapper and murderer, David Waters. As the film progresses we learn that Waters was a former employee of American Atheists. We also learn that he was fired after a fight with Murray O’Hair at a Christmas party. What we don’t learn is why the hell Waters then went and kidnapped her! One can assume it had to do with him being upset over being fired, but that is never clearly stated either through dialogue or subtext.
Another possible motivation is pure greed. Waters kidnapped Murray O’Hair and her family with the intent of taking a million dollars from her offshore bank accounts. Was Waters just trying to teach her a lesson? Get rich? Was he just an angry psychopath? I have no idea, and I don’t think the writers or the filmmaker had any idea either.
The only character with any clear motivation for their actions was of William Murray, Madalyn’s oldest son. William was his mother’s closest confidant. However as time went on, William became unwilling to continue to help his mother, yet she forced him to stay in the organization. This led to William becoming an alcoholic and being left by his wife. After this he becomes angry at his mother and leaves the American Atheists to become a reverend. There is a clear line of logic that follows throughout William’s character arch. We don’t see with anyone else in this movie.
Casting also seemed a bit strange for some of the rolls in this film. Adam Scott (Parks and Recreation, Step Brothers) plays the rogue investigative journalist who almost singlehandedly is trying to uncover the mystery of Murray O’Hair and her family’s disappearance. Think Bernstein and Woodward except slightly less competent and significantly more out of place.
The worst casting decision and performance without a doubt was that of the primary antagonist David Waters. Waters was played by Josh Lucas (Glory Road, J. Edgar). Lucas’ performance was more of a caricature of a villain rather than an actual human being who actually existed. Throughout the length of the film, Lucas never didn’t have a cigarette in his mouth and his voice never raised above a gravelly mumble. It was a villain pulled straight out of ‘central casting’ and it showed.
The highlight of this film is without a doubt the performance of Melissa Leo as Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Leo is able to channel the unabashed sassiness of the real Murray O’Hair into her performance. Watching this character verbally devastate everyone she debated against was enormously entertaining. And let’s all agree to just ignore the atrocious old age makeup she was forced to wear.
There simply however was not enough meat in this movie to be saved by one good performance. The character’s motivations were convoluted and illogical, and the nonlinear storytelling missed the mark. When the credits rolled I felt as if I had only watched half a movie.