Shot in only eight days and loaded with pulpy narrative turns, Tyler Perry’s new feature Acrimony (which is currently playing in general release) feels like a 1940s B thriller blown up to contemporary A movie proportions. I enjoyed the film, albeit with significant reservations. Acrimony is devoid of subtlety; the clodhopper dialogue tells viewers what to think at every turn, just as the barebones imagery instructs viewers exactly where to look. Yet the movie is never boring, and it succeeds as a vehicle for lead actress Taraji P. Henson. Henson’s commanding performance brings nuance to a character who would otherwise seem one-note; the movie is a better showcase for her talent than the rote action flick Proud Mary, which came out earlier this year.
Acrimony opens in a courtroom as a judge issues a restraining order against Henson’s character, Melinda, and orders her to take part in counseling. Next we see Henson sitting on a therapist’s couch, smoking a cigarette with the implacable cool of a young Lauren Bacall. Perry slowly zooms in on the heroine as she promises to divulge how she wound up here; Henson seethes with controlled rage, and her emotion feels more pronounced as she comes into closeup. Smoking seems to keep her anger in check, as it will throughout the film—indeed Acrimony may contain the most expressive smoking in an American movie since James Benning’s experimental feature Twenty Cigarettes (2011). It seems odd that the therapist would allow Melinda to smoke in her office, but this is hardly the most implausible thing to happen in Acrimony. Anyhow, the detail provides a nice bit of characterization and it gives Henson something to do while she sits on the couch.
Melinda proceeds to tell the story of her marriage and how she came to be a threat against her ex-husband. For the next hour, we don’t see much of Henson (her character is played as a younger woman by Ajiona Alexus), though the star narrates the action and shapes the audience’s response. Melinda meets her future husband, Robert, at college when they literally bump into each other in the rain. He knocks her papers out of her hands, then tracks down her dorm room to return them, and the two make plans to see each other again. Robert is an aspiring inventor with plans to create a self-recharging battery; he’s also a born charmer who’s able to persuade Melinda to give him everything he wants. In little time Melinda is paying Robert’s tuition and buying him a car with money she inherited from her mother, so great is her belief that his invention will make him a rich man some day. Her older sisters see trouble, but Melinda doesn’t listen to them and the relationship grows serious.
Perry has fun deflating the onscreen romance with Henson’s cynical commentary, making the generic scenes of courtship seem sinister. The air of foreboding bears fruit when Melinda discovers that Robert’s been cheating on her with another student. She catches them in Robert’s trailer home, and in a rage, she drives her car into it, knocking it over and severely injuring herself. It’s one of the movie’s most lurid and entertaining scenes, and it provides momentary catharsis for Melinda’s pent-up resentment. (Too bad Perry fails to generate much suspense before the collision—Henson’s narration has one waiting for something explosive to happen from very early on.) Taken to the hospital, Melinda is diagnosed with an ovarian rupture; the doctors tell her she’ll never be able to have children. Though Melinda was responsible for the accident, Perry, taking a cue from his heroine, places the blame on Robert. If he hadn’t been unfaithful, the movie suggests, none of this would have happened.
Robert apologizes for the affair after Melinda gets out of the hospital and even convinces her to marry him. Rather than support her, however, he devotes all his time to his invention, forcing Melinda to work two jobs to keep them afloat. This goes on for years, and Perry shows the passage of the time with a single cut where the younger actors who played Robert and Melinda as college students are replaced by Henson and Lyriq Bent. It’s an effective way of conveying how time can get the better of people, rendering them unrecognizable to themselves. (Pedro Almodovar achieved a similar effect in his recent film Julieta.) Where Melinda has grown more resentful of her role as breadwinner, Robert remains more or less the same, tinkering away at his battery and making promises of becoming rich. His dreams eventually come true, but only after he bankrupts Melinda and provokes her to file for divorce.
Melinda goes ballistic when Robert becomes a rich man. He gives her $10 million to apologize for the grief he caused her, but Melinda resents this when she finds out that Robert has plans to remarry. (In the movie’s most soap-opera-ish development, the new woman is the same one with whom he cheated on Melinda in college.) What follows is a preposterous revenge thriller, with Melinda spinning further out of control as she attempts to reclaim the life she believes Robert took from her. Perry doesn’t develop much ambiguity as Melinda transforms from a hero to a villain—he simply lets Henson run away with the part, allowing her to relish the opportunity to play the wicked witch. It’s all very entertaining and dumb, the posh settings pushing the drama further into the realm of escapist fantasy.