The whole time I watched The Most Hated Woman in America I couldn’t help but imagine what this vehicle would’ve looked like had it been handled by the Coen brothers and led by Joel’s wonderful wife, Frances McDormand, in the titular role of Madylyn Murray O’Hair. At the same time, I was simply so fascinated to learn the life story of such a divisive woman, even as I craved for a longer, deeper dive into her story from any team at all. The film also genuinely improves as it goes, lifting off from a messy opening into a pretty textured study of this woman’s life. Melissa Leo, perfectly cast as such a self-satisfied, thorny woman, improves with the film without suggesting anything beyond what the film wants to about O’Hair. What’s admirable is the briskness of the editing, whizzing by years of family life to focus on Madylyn’s political and religious expitions, which is probably how Madylyn would’ve focused on those parts of her life first. The interweaving of her life’s story with her kidnapping gets a lot better once she professionally meets David Waters, easily the strongest segment of her pre-kidnapping story. I never understood why exactly the film wasn’t told chronologically, lord knows that’s not a sin that this film alone perpetrates, but it’s still an odd choice. Even if it’s presuming we don’t know Madylyn’s life story, that’s not necessarily a reason to make a frame story out of her, her son, and her granddaughter’s final weeks on Earth.
Whatever complaints I may have about the film formally, or what it might have been, the basic story of Madylyn’s crusade against religion in school is a genuinely interesting story to watch. If the first scenes, as she yells at her father while announcing her second out-of-wedlock pregnancy, seem to be trying too hard to sell this woman’s brass and atheism, it’s remarkably comfortable sitting with her once she actually takes her first case to court. Her evolving empire of fighting for the removal of religion from other public spaces, her changing relationships with two sons and their own families, her stint with televised debates against reverend Bob Harrington, and her own strange mother-son/boss-employee relationship with her eventual killer David Waters are all fascinating life stories that are all slightly undermined by the flash-forward frame narration revealing practically all of this. The actual scenes of Madylyn and her family being held hostage have a real sense of escalating danger, with such a tense rapport between the O’Hairs and their kidnappers it’s sort of amazing they hadn’t been murdered already. I don’t mean to phrase that in a way that may point the blame at the O’Hairs themselves, though Madylyn certainly goes out of her way to provoke Waters. She knows Waters can’t kill them but is too scared by him to know this once her barbs hit their marks and he starts barking at her, threatening to kill her there and then. Their actual murder, a chain reaction starting from the accidental killing of granddaughter Rose by one of the kidnappers as he attempted to rape her that leads to Madylyn watching helplessly as her son Jon be suffocated to death. Steeling herself for her own death, Madylyn tells them to kill her only moments after her son has died, unable to hide her fears in her trembling body despite the fortitude in her command. There’s something impressive in how the film is able to stay so harrowing this entire sequence, as well as the subsequent scenes where Waters is captured and reveals the fates of his associates, one silenced by Waters and the other out of fear he would talk. They’re right, but hours too late to stop him from mailing his brother a letter with enough information to damn his more committed kidnapping partners.
If the final third is the most technically proficient segment of the film, it speaks to how well Leo pulls herself and the film together in its middle stretches that it’s a fairly compelling watch throughout. Even if it’s not essential viewing, O’Hair’s life story is such a singular one I never felt compelled to turn it off. Yes, I also spent most of the feature dreaming of what the McCoens could’ve done with it, not just because it’s been nine years since they gave her a real role to chew on in Burn After Reading, but because they’re so comfortable with the kind of prickly, aggressive character Madylyn Murray O’Hair undeniably was, even if they’ve never tackled a biopic before. Hell, I’d love to see what the Coens would do with Leo, who’s seemingly made a career out of playing brainy, spiky women, even winning an Oscar for one of them. If The Most Hated Woman In America still strikes me most for what it could’ve been, there’s still something to admire in what Leo and director Tommy O’Haver ultimately achieve for this film, nevermind my sheer, constant surprise that this woman’s story was even told, period. There’s nothing conventional about this woman or her life, and if the film could’ve done more to reflect that life properly, it still gives enough to make me look her up on my own time and fill in the cracks myself. Which maybe isn’t great, but hey. Not like this is towering enough to stop a really ambitious filmmaker from taking her story on. Maybe one day we’ll get a proper biopic on the life of Madylyn Murray O’Hair. I hope we do, and if it happens, I’ll be first in line to go.