Writer-director Marianna Palka’s Bitch is a bizarre and vexing provocation that’s coyly built around the dual meaning of its title. Palka seeks to put some bite into the well-tread narrative of marital discord brewing beneath the veneer of middle-class contentment: Her tragicomic tale details the familial meltdown that results from Jill (Palka), a neglected, suicidal wife and mother of four, snapping and beginning to act and sound like a feral dog. Bitch employs absurdist humor—think Quentin Dupieux adapting Kafka’s The Metamorphosis—to convey its feminist satire and attempts to get as much mileage as it can from its insane but ultimately restrictive premise.
Jill’s mental breakdown is presented with a lighthearted comic touch—along with a discordant, jazzy score—that helps to approximate the off-kilter perspective from which she sees the world. As the philandering, workaholic Bill (Jason Ritter) treats his wife as if she doesn’t exist, and her children constantly barrage her with complaints, she’s readily drawn to a mysterious dog who continues to appear in the family’s front lawn. How she comes to transform into a dog is never explained, but Palka leaves no questions about just how real the effects of Jill’s newfound condition are on those around her. After Jill locks herself in the basement, her family must clean up the shit and piss she leaves in the kitchen and endure her constant barking and growling.
Once Jill’s transformation is complete, Palka shifts the focus to Bill, whose world is thrown into chaos once he has to juggle a demanding job with caring for his children. His transition into a more involved parental figure is made especially amusing through the way Ritter’s broad physical humor and acute comic timing offsets his character’s confusion and anger. In a particularly funny scene, Bill returns to his car after struggling to drop his kids off at schools whose locations are unknown to him. After screaming a lengthy string of obscenities about his wife, he glances in the rear-view mirror and realizes that his youngest son is still in the car. Bill’s instantaneous switch from unadulterated rage to fatherly concern makes for the film’s most amusing collision of anger and pathos, played out perfectly in Ritter’s expressive face.
Once Bill’s personal and professional lives bottom out, though, Palka seems to have exhausted all of the comedic and metaphorical possibilities of her commentary on the undervalued and overlooked nature of mothers within the modern family unit. At this point, Bitch awkwardly pivots toward a more inspirational story of regret and reconciliation where Bill rapidly learns how to be a present and compassionate parent. Although Jill’s ongoing condition helps to retain a residual offbeat charm, it also reduces the importance of her role in the narrative, as Palka’s feminist insights are filtered through the experiences of her male protagonist. And once a more recognizable reality starts to surface during Bill’s redemptive journey, the initial, almost surrealist spell of the film begins to dissipate. With its quirky surface pleasures minimized, the banality of both Bitch’s underlying domestic drama and its insights are laid bare, resulting in a film that’s ultimately all bark and no bite.