This is a mighty strange film. At a somewhat grinding two hours, it advertises an ambition to push beyond a mere genre-thriller-template into … what? Testament? Confession? Lars von Trier psychodrama? It’s hard to tell what investment writer-director Tyler Perry (“Forbes listed him as the highest paid man in entertainment”, says Wikpedia) has in this material – and it may be best to never know.
It’s a “woman wronged” revenge tale (the poster blares: “Hell Hath No Fury”) – sort of. It begins with Melinda (Taraji P. Henson – who Time listed as “one of the hundred most influential people in the world”, source ditto) getting chewed out in court by a judge for harassment of the couple formed by her ex-husband Robert (Lyriq Benr) and his new partner, Diana (Crystle Stewart); and then undergoing a mandatory psychiatric session. Her sofa-prone retelling of the past that led to her sorry state – “I remember every day of it!”, she cries, and the film makes you believe that – triggers a long flashback.
And here’s where it starts getting strange – and potentially even interesting. Melinda’s voice-over narration tells you everything as we are seeing it, fills in everything, comments on everything, and interprets everything – to the point where you start to doubt its veracity. She piles on, minute by minute, shot by shot, the retrospective accusations, the condemnations, the regret, the self-flagellation, the masochism … We hear, over and over, about what an absolute shit Robert is, what a cheat and a liar, what a hopeless dreamer, what an unworking bum, what a money-grubbing leech sucking away her family nest-egg … and that leeching part comes illustrated with running maths sums charting the degradation of her bank account printed on screen. I am all for cinematic excess, but this struck even me as an excessive detail. But it’s classical subtlety compared with the insane over-sell of that voice-over narration.
By the time this voice had droned on for maybe 30 or 40 minutes, as it seemed – tracing the young love and swift descent into marital despair of Melinda and Robert (played in this section by Ajiona Alexus and Antonio Madison) – I was expecting a daring shift, De Palma or Fincher style, into a radically different POV: maybe we were about to get the whole shebang so far replayed from his perspective, or something similar. But that would leave us stranded with the young actors, not our stars. So …
Something odder starts to happen. Gradually, so gradually, the film starts to peel off from its main narrational line, to cleave away from Melinda’s POV – even though all of that is still going on at an increasingly hysterical intensity. We start to follow Robert in scenes that Melinda cannot witness, of which she knows or comprehends nothing. And, in these scenes, we see that Robert – while remaining something of a pathetic dreamer, spineless guy and goddamn fool – is actually not lying, sleeping around with Diana (I shall return to her place in the film’s strange scheme of things), deliberately blowing money, or any of that which Melinda is saying/projecting. Here, after a long ‘woman’s film’ detour, we are returning to a generic staple of thrillers: the crazily jealous, violently angry woman who is fast on her way to becoming a dangerous banshee. What a long, strange road we had to take to reach her!
I won’t keep chugging through the plot, for the sake of anyone who wants to see the movie relatively fresh – its weirdness on this level, at least, is worth experiencing with virginal eyes and ears. But I can note some other intriguing or nutty things about it.
Like the famous “stages of grieving” that were once fashionably woven into the social text of comedies and dramas alike (Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz  expertly milked the template both ways), Acrimony is constructed on what I have seen described (Wikipedia again) as an “emotional spectrum”. Each point on this spectrum – Acrimony, Sunder, Bewail, Deranged and Inexorable, which is the most illogical, Borgesian-dictionary chain imaginable – comes with its own title and list of defining synonyms. However, it takes so long (an hour?) to reach the second of these items that one shudders in fear that it will take five hours, at least, to get through the whole sequence.
Some things are really stretched out in this movie, while others never to seem to change one iota, even across constant repetitions and an epic narrative chronology. Strangeness-plus is the dead-on result. There is a bold moment of ellipsis: almost 20 years of a bad marriage in which – the image and that bloody voice-over tell us – absolutely nothing advanced, and stasis killed everything. (No kids to mark the passing years! – she actually says this.) Now the older actors can step in front of the mirror (literally) and take back the screen. They look haggard, defeated, alienated. Around them hovers Melinda’s unlovely, Fassbinder-like family clan: snoops, gossips, moralists, ‘interventionists’. They are all horrible, like Wicked Sisters from a grotesque fairy tale. There’s a random guy who Melinda beds for consolation for one night only, but he has – dear me – a “small dick”. (“When a man comes, the truth comes out”: not a bad line, that.) But, at a certain point far along the path, you actually start feeling a little sorry for this whole family, and especially for Robert, having to suffer the “deranged” Melinda. That’s curious in itself, given where and how the film starts out.
Back to the time-structuring of the piece, and its crazy air of eternal return. OK, 20 years fly by. But, every week of that entire time, Robert has been petitioning to win some kind of “lottery” run (it’s obviously a perennial scheme) by the visionary benefactor of some vague corporation – and if Robert wins, his invention (a battery) will be patented, produced, marketed, etc, and he will surely become rich. Melinda, understandably, doubts the wisdom of Robert putting his life (and earning capability) on hold for two decades as he fiddles in his room with cables and blows out the home’s electrical circuits in pursuit of this mad, hopeless, impractical dream. At one point, a representative of the corporation rings to inform Robert that he has been deemed a “security risk” and cannot contact or come anywhere near the building. Which seems a sensible move on the company’s part.
Here’s where the figure of Diana gets back into it. She was the naked, young babe inside the trailer that Melinda tried to destroy, all those years ago, when she realised her man was fooling around inside it. Now she’s back … and, in a wonderful coincidence of fate, working high up inside the very corporation from which Robert is trying to win blessings! It’s she who first brings on the restraining order … but then, actually looking at his plans for the first time in corporate history, she realises: he is a genius! This is where everything turns around, massively and queasily. For from there – past the point where Melinda has misread all the signs and demanded a divorce – Diana and Robert will reunite and become a couple. Some things just never change! Except this time, they do get rich on that amazing battery deal, they ride on a luxury boat, they have wonderful sex, etc. When Melinda confronts Robert (once again) with the refrain of the wronged, jealous woman – “she’s living my life, she’s benefitting from the invention I subsidised, she’s making love to my man”, etc – Robert can only say, in pained exasperation: “But it’s you who divorced me!” Remember, we had a lengthy sequence devoted to Robert’s days and nights in a flophouse, with even his mobile phone ignominiously stolen!
Acrimony looks for a quick exit from all this surrealistic confusion, overstatement and semantic path-swapping. It’s one of those thrillers (eventually) where we are whisked away from the final image as fast as a soaring crane – reframing the whole in a dramatic overhead angle before the ultimate fade-out and musical decrescendo – can take us. And before it just as rapidly disappears from my consciousness forever, I commit these perplexed notes to posterity.
© Adrian Martin June 2018