Blood On Her Name. 2019.
Directed by Matthew Pope. Screenplay by Pope & Don M. Thompson.
Starring Bethany Anne Lind, Will Patton, Elisabeth Röhm, Jared Ivers, Jimmy Gonzales, Jack Andrews, & Joshua Mikel.
85 minutes / Not Rated
Crime / Drama / Thriller
DISCLAIMER: The following essay contains slight spoilers
While we rightly push towards better representation onscreen for women, we can’t forget part of said representation is allowing women to, at times, fill the same roles typically given to men. We don’t have to always see women necessarily playing the hero, or being the picture of perfect morals and values. It’s great, and refreshing, to see a female protagonist playing a villain, or— in the case of Matthew Pope’s debut, Blood On Her Name— a character of questionable morality. Because, yes, men, women are humans, and humans are plenty messy.
Pope’s story, penned with co-writer Don M. Thompson, follows Leigh Tiller (Bethany Anne Lind)— a small town single mother working as a mechanic and running the shop previously owned by her criminal husband. We meet her after she’s murdered a man, in what appears to be self-defence. She’s not quite ready to go to the cops. Certainly not the town sheriff, her father Richard (Will Patton), with whom she has a relationship that’s, let’s say, difficult. Between trying to protect her son Ryan (Jared Ivers) from growing up without both parents, and feeling guilt over what she’s done, Leigh has to make a series of life-changing decisions in a short amount of time.
And not all of them go so well.
Blood On Her Name challenges perceptions of women in genre films using a clever neo-noir drama as a gritty vessel. The morality is fluid, and by the end there’s no clear path towards deciding whether to side with Leigh or with anybody in particular. We’re purposely meant to have a hard time figuring out what side to land on when it comes to Leigh’s decisions. Along the way her struggle exposes issues of gender, like the misogyny and sexism women deal with when they live in a supposed man’s world, both outside and inside the family. Regardless of how you judge Leigh, you’ll spend 85 minutes with clenched ass cheeks, worried sick for how her life is about to turn out.
“I kept your secrets my whole life”
One of the great things Pope does is immediately put the viewer in a position of following right along with Leigh, unaware of exactly what’s happened. We spend the movie essentially rooted entirely in her perspective, yet for the first leg of the plot we’re unable to make any kind of moral judgement about what Leigh has actually done. She’s not quite an unreliable narrator, Pope simply drops us into the tense aftermath of Leigh’s actions, forcing us to empathise no matter what she has or has not done.
Something else fascinating is how Pope uses an almost inexplicable act to drive the plot forward. Leigh’s return of the dead man’s corpse to his family’s property is a strange manifestation of guilt. For certain viewers it may even push against their sense of logic. It’s in this act that Leigh becomes painfully human, revealing a major difference between representations of gender in crime films. Most guilty men who’ve killed people in films tend to stick with dumping or burying the body, only to wither away with guilt anyway. Instead, Leigh can’t bring herself to make a person disappear off the face of the earth, more worried about how it would affect their family than about what it’ll mean for her once the body’s inevitably discovered. This is where the film really leans into our preconceived notions of morality and makes Leigh all the more sympathetic. The potential for sympathy and empathetic viewing doesn’t stop there, either.
To say any more would ruin the impact.Apart from the depiction of Leigh’s morality there are many other issues at play in the film concerning gender. Leigh exists in a hypermasculine world. She’s a mechanic, stepping in as the one running the business full-time while her husband is off in prison. She lives in a rural town dominated by guns, hunting, and fishing, all of which is typically deemed part of the male sphere. More than the excessive testosterone flowing in her town, Leigh deals with everyday misogyny and sexism. In one scene specifically, she dances with a guy at the bar and when she rejects his sexual advances he gets violent with her— a bartender later blames a bar fight on Leigh “grinding [her] snatch.”
What becomes obvious is the town’s attitude towards women. Leigh’s forced to conform to what others, mainly men, expect her to be, whether a sex object at the bar, the perfect mother at home, or an obedient, secret-keeping daughter. “She‘s a good girl, she‘ll do what she‘s told,” Richard says in a flashback. This moment stems from a traumatic incident in Leigh’s childhood, during which she heard and saw criminal things involving her father. Due to this event, her father expects she will forever remain the loyal daughter who’ll follow his command. This brews up an interesting mix of emotions that come uncorked in the final 15 minutes.
Lee’s sense of morality is ultimately her downfall, in spite of her many other questionable moral decisions throughout the film. However, it’s her sense of morality that distinguishes her life from the poisonous patriarchal legacy of her father, and of the town in general. Richard’s ugly legacy nearly becomes Leigh’s own, except she tries to make the right choices no matter what it costs. She nevertheless makes those choices, for better or worse, and finally proves herself fundamentally different than her father.
Pope’s film is a stellar debut, and something atypical in the way of neo-noir. Leigh isn’t relegated to a femme fatale here, nor any other stock, cardboard cutout of a female genre character. She is allowed to be the complicated, dark, interesting protagonist rather than the typical man leading a noir-ish crime-thriller. On top of that is the twisty story that reveals truth to us only in small increments, tiny, tasty, genre-rific morsels that will have most viewers on the edge of their seats.
Blood On Her Name efficiently tells a cracking story while simultaneously tackling issues of gender and morality, both of which are ever present and more than occasionally problematic in the (neo)noir genre. Lind’s performance anchors all the gender, genre, and morality in a character who feels ultra-realistic. Watching her panic and constant stress from the first shot up until the last is an exercise in stamina, but a truly entertaining one at that. Her wrestling match with morality is one of the early highlights of 2020, and a lesson— yet another— that female-led genre films present so many new, interesting avenues to explore with an emotional resonance similarly themed male-led films just don’t always offer.