Without a moment's hesitation, I'd declare 2009's I Can Do Bad All By Myself the peak of Tyler Perry's career as a director, and in a pinch I'd call 2008's The Family That Preys his second-best, and this matters because of one of the only characteristics they share in common: prior to 2018, they were the only Perry films starring Taraji P. Henson. I won't go so far as to say this gave me "hope" for Acrimony, since it is always dangerous to enter into a Perry film with hope in your heart, but it did make me wonder if it might be at the very least on the right side of the curve, and at the very most, one of Peey's intermittent genuinely good films. At the absolute bare minimum, I figured it had to be the better Henson picture of 2018, after the dire Proud Mary.

Well, anyway, it's better than Proud Mary.

Acrimony represents a distinct break from Perry's late career. It's his first full-on melodrama in the five years since Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor: the form that used to be the writer-director's bread and butter has largely fallen by the wayside as he's stuck with comedies, primarily those which allow him to place his famed Madea character in various holiday settings. It is also, if I am not mistaken, his very first honest-to-God thriller ever, and only his second R-rated feature, after the 2010 theatrical adaptation For Colored Girls. And these latter two points are, I think, both causes for alarm, or at least a certain wariness. For whatever skills Perry has demonstrated down through the years, I'm not sure that any of them would port right over to the business of thriller-making.

Lo and behold, Acrimony is pretty resolutely un-thrilling. Right down to its bones: this is almost impressively misconceived and mishandled, a throwback to the days when it seemed like Perry actually didn't know how to make a movie at all, not merely when he simply doesn't seem terribly interested in making good ones. The film starts towards its end, with Melinda (Henson) sitting all coiled up in a psychiatrist's office, taking long drags from a cigarette and declaring herself to be a wronged woman whose problems are solely the fault of the no-good bastard who she married. And then we skip back some twenty years or more, to see the story of how young Melinda (Ajiona Alexus) met Robert (Antonio Madison) in college, and was taken by his ambition to build a better battery. They fall in love, but when Robert cheats with Diana (Shavon Kirksey), a distraught Melinda retaliates by driving her car into Robert's trailer while the two are fucking, so hard that she causes it to roll over.

The rest of the story moves forward from there - the couple marries, and then Robert (who grows up to become Lyriq Bent) spends years draining Melinda's substantial inheritance dry trying to find a home for his battery. He also never quite cuts ties with Diana (Crystle Stewart), which of course drives Melinda into a fury when she finds out. The couple divorces at Melinda's insistence, and a while later, Robert and Diana announce their engagement, and this makes Melinda especially mad. It's a perfectly fine "woman scorned" thriller- wait, no it isn't. It's a fucking terrible woman scorned picture, in part because it is never, ever clear whose side we're on. The way narrative information is dolloped out is imbalanced in weird ways, with the effect that we have less reason than Melinda to assume that Robert has persisted in his infidelity, but not no reason. That's a big reason why it's never entirely possible for us to root for Melinda's paranoid campaign of revenge - that, and the way that Perry and cinematographer Richard J. Vialet light and frame Henson to look sullen and squat, conspiring with the hair and make-up people to make her seem as haggard and unappealing as possible. Which is only kind of haggard and unappealing, because it's Taraji P. Henson, but there's no doubt that the film is visually stacking the deck against Melinda.

At the same time, if Melinda is meant to be the unhinged villain of the piece: well, then what the fuck is the point? The plot unspools such that we're apparently meant to get quite a vivid thrill from Melinda's righteously indignant acts of vengeance and to be outraged at the world's unfair conspiracy against her. It's pure exploitation grit and grime, and yet what's to be excited about if the hero is actually a psycho? Perry's filmography is littered with blunt-force moralising, and I'd be willing to assume that maybe the goal here was to point out that rooting for sociopaths is bad and we should feel bad for doing it, except that nothing he's ever touched has anything like the meta-narrative cunning that would involve. He likes his morals straightforward and hectoring. Also, he has made many films about women getting self-righteous vengeance on the men who've betrayed them, and never with a micron of ambiguity or doubt.

So it's ultimately a very unsatisfying, unclear "woman scorned" thriller, shot to look like a parody of its genre, with no clarity around what we're supposed to know or who we're supposed to sympathise with. The only part of it I like at all is the nuts ending, which goes violent in ways that I wasn't expecting and throws any pretense of morality or thematic cohesion to the wind: it becomes a gonzo trashy '70s film for five or ten wonderful minutes, and it becomes quite impossible for me to figure out what Perry means to say, but he says it with some real gusto.

But none of this is the misconceived and mishandled part. The bulk of the movie, recall, is a flashback; we've been telling stories this way for decades. Somehow, Perry fucks it up. When Acrimony leaps back in time, it loses any and all sense of momentum, and it spends far too much time on developing threads that we already know aren't going anywhere, and generally proceeds with a stately air that is entirely at odds with with the grim opening. Acrimony manages, somehow, to be two hours long, and they are two viciously slow-moving hours. Making matters worse, the film divides itself into five uneven chapters, each headed by a word - Acrimony, Sunder, Bewail, Deranged, and Inexorable (so a noun, two verbs, and two adjectives) - that is presented in a very cheap-looking dramatic font and then defined in terms of its synonyms. This appears to give the film a structure, but in fact it almost rather does the opposite: it arbitrarily attempts to partition a plot that already suffers rather badly from a most erratic rhythm, and slows down a movie that was already remarkably sluggish for a revenge drama. The ending is at least warped, but overall Acrimony is neither insightful nor fun nor much of anything else: it's a waste of Henson's talents and somehow, it's even a waste of Perry's talents, too.