Madalyn Murray O’Hair was an activist. For atheism. Perhaps you remember her? She was reviled by some and praised by others, I suppose depending on which side of god’s fence you sit on, if you believe there’s a fence, and whether you believe other people have the right to picket that fence. She took pride in being a nonconformist; it suited her already abrasive personality. When she was unable to defect to the state atheist USSR (they wouldn’t have her), she moved in instead with her mother in, and took on the Baltimore public school system. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court and led to prayer being banned in schools. Hate mail sometimes contained actual shit but praise mail sometimes contained cheques. Her penchant for nonconformism led to “creative accounting” with her so-called non-profit.
Anyway. This movie is NOT the story of Madalyn’s gleeful adoption of a derisive nickname given to her by Life magazine on its front page (“The Most Hated Woman in America”). No, this film instead focuses on that time in 1995 when Madalyn (Melissa Leo) was kidnapped from her own home, along with her son (Michael Chernus) and granddaughter (Juno Temple) by the likes of Josh Lucas and Rory Cochrane. A friend of the family has trouble convincing anyone that a crime has occurred, and only a reluctant journalist (Adam Scott) pursues their disappearance.
O’Hair was clearly a complicated individual but this film is not the best gauge. Narratively it’s full of jumping beans, skipping around like it can’t find an interesting thread even though actually any thread would have been fascinating if only the film had the courage to stick with it. Melissa Leo and cast are able enough; Leo serves this prickly character rather perfectly but the rest are more or less wasted. This film only manages to scrape the tip of an ice berg, story-wise, but if you’re surfing Netflix looking for some true (ish) crime and an Oscar-winning barbed tongue, you could do worse.