While she isn’t as well known today as she was during her life, Madalyn Murray O’Hair is one of the most fascinating women in American history. She fought to take Bible reading and prayer out of public schools and founded the American Atheists organization. During her work to fight for religious freedom, she made a lot of enemies, which ultimately led to the brutal murder of her, her son, and her granddaughter. The story of Murray O’Hair is the subject of a new Netflix original film from director Tommy O’Haver (An American Crime, Ella Enchanted). While the film is commanded by an excellent performance from Melissa Leo and is told at a brisk pace, it’s an overly simplified, tonally inconsistent mess that never lives up to a complex legacy.
The sole glimmers of greatness from this film come from Melissa Leo’s performance as Murray O’Hair herself and the rather brisk pace that the movie runs at. Leo is absolutely terrific as she flawlessly embodies the title character with such manic persistence and a boldly abrasive attitude that carries the entire film. It’s a complex and brilliant performance that perfectly suits the complex subject she depicts. Unfortunately, Leo’s fine work is the sole element of this production that does Murray O’Hair any justice whatsoever. Thankfully, the film runs at a quick pace, making the pain of this mess feel more like a pinch than a sting as it unfolds.
The biggest element that becomes a detriment to the quality of the film is how O’Haver structured it. The movie is told in a non-linear fashion going back and forth between Murray O’Hair’s early life, her suit against the Supreme Court, the founding of American Atheists, her disappearance/murder and the investigation that happened during and after the crime. With so much ground to cover and such a short 90-minute runtime to work with, the film becomes a jumbled mess really quickly as it jumps back and forth from period to period without any rhyme or reason. Perhaps a longer runtime would have helped given the story some breathing room, and if the film had a much stronger focus, it wouldn’t be as messy as it is.
With it being such a short and concise film, The Most Hated Woman in America fails to really touch on Murray O’Hair’s history with any depth. Instead, O’Haver provides a shallow, SparkNotes-like exploration of who she was, what she did and what happened afterwards. O’Haver also approaches the subject matter in a generic fashion as he hits all of the typical beats of the average biopic. What makes this simplification even worse is that a fair chunk of the information provided in the film is misrepresentative. Murray O’Hair’s son, William J. Murray III has dismissed quite a bit of the movie as inaccurate, as it leaves out complexities about some of the actual people that the film is based on. Despite him saying that “a lot of elements in the movie look like something that has been taken directly from a Google search,” audiences would probably get a lot more depth and accuracy about Murray O’Hair from Google than this film.
None of the supporting characters are well-developed either. This includes people important to the story such as Murray O’Hair’s children, William and Jon Garth Murray (Vincent Kartheiser and Michael Chernus), Jack Ferguson (a fictionalized version of the journalist, John MacCormack, who was key in the investigation of her murder, played by Adam Scott), and especially her granddaughter, Robin (Juno Temple). By simplifying such a complex person’s life and achievements as well as failing to develop the people around her, O’Haver does a disservice to Murray O’Hair and the people wishing to learn more about her.
The cinematography is also quite disgusting at times. On a frequent basis, Armando Salas resorts to shaky cam for no particular reason. These shots start off mostly in the 1995 segments, but then slowly make their way into the other parts of the film. It makes for an incredibly ugly looking movie and distracts from the impact that the film should have.
While O’Haver’s structural approach and exploration are the biggest issues by far, another problem that stands out is the film’s tonal inconsistency. A fair portion of the story takes place in 1995 when Murray O’Hair and her family were abducted, but there is rarely a sense of terror or tension in those moments. At times, it feels quite sitcom-like, which is not the fault of the actors but instead the fault of O’Haver and Irene Turner’s screenplay, which tries to be witty. At times, the soundtrack or background noise is also off-putting as it feels like it doesn’t fit the situation occurring on screen. While this isn’t as apparent as the general tonal inconsistency, it does assist in enhancing that particular flaw.
The Most Hated Woman in America tries to do justice to an overlooked American icon, but despite Melissa Leo’s stunning work in embodying the film’s complex subject, the rest of the movie never lives up to her performance. It’s a structural and tonal mess that only provides the basic details of her life and is devoid of any depth and development. For those interested in learning more about Murray O’Hair, take some time to read about her because that would provide more information than this film did.
(Featured image: The Most Hated Woman in America, Netflix)