Movies about unsolved cases can be a tricky proposition for audiences. After all, the notion that a case may not be wrapped up by a film’s end is a risky commitment for creatives because the mainstream is used to resolution at the end of a movie. This is not a suggestion that Jake Scott’s “American Woman” has no resolution to its mystery, but as the film goes along, and 11 years go by in the case of a missing child, you start to suspect that the motivation at hand by Scott could very well be influenced by David Fincher’s “Zodiac.”
Scott, son of Ridley, proved he had potential with 2010’s “Meet The Rileys,” but this latest film takes on heavier themes with rather mixed results, despite the solid acting and the filmmaker’s keen eye for detail.
The story, set in a small Pennsylvania working-class town, is grim. Following the disappearance of her teenage daughter, a mother (Sienna Miller) must raise her daughter’s child with barely any clues or answers to be found about her daughter’s case. The film turns out to be more about how the tragedy changes Deb than the solving of the case. Her daughter Bridget had her son Jesse at a very young age, although it is never specified exactly when. Then one night Bridget gets into a fight with her boyfriend — Jesse’s father — goes for a walk back home alone and vanishes. As time passes, Deb’s healing progresses, she raises Jesse on her own and even finds a new love in her life (the severely miscast Aaron Paul).
Deb does have family helping her cope with the sudden loss of her daughter; her sister (Christina Hendricks) lives across the street with husband her Terry (Will Sasso, of all people) and her mother (Amy Madigan) shows care and compassion every step of the way, even when she annoys Deb about the rather misguided selection of men she brings back to the house. If at first dysfunctional, the family grows closer as the years go by and the realization that the case may never be solved becomes part of a daily reality they all have to face.
This is a dark story told with very little light or humor, Scott tries to paint a grim portrait of small-town America, where life can be sucked right out of you due to a lack of job opportunities, chauvinistic men, and a community talking behind each other’s backs. The fact that the characters in the film are caricatured in a way that resembles the cliches we consistently find in films depicting these kinds of communities makes for a rather flat effort on the part of Scott. Even worse, for a film that is about a missing child, which spans more than a decade, the movie has a knack for never truly delving deep enough into the hows and whys of the tragic events, only delving into the case much later on.
Written by Brad Ingelsby, “American Woman” is more interested in the lives of these working-class characters rather than the more intriguing prospect of a whodunnit. Although Miller invests heart and soul into the performance, maybe even career-best work from the actress, and the rest of the cast, especially Hendricks, are excellent, Ingelsby’s screenplay foolishly decides to lay its interests on Deb’s terrible taste in men rather than her daughter’s disappearance. Once the case is reopened in the final stretch we do feel reinvested in the story, but it’s a question of too little too late as so much time was wasted on the way to our destination. [C-]