Breaking Bad was never planned as a national conversation starter about sexist double standards in media, but the broad public reaction to Anna Gunn’s character, Skyler White, rapidly turned it into one. Skyler drew so much vitriol that Gunn wrote a New York Times op-ed about the response, and the way it became a referendum on her personally. And a thousand thinkpieces followed, dissecting the Breaking Bad fandom’s rabid response to Skyler, and making the case for and against her. Meera Menon’s new film Equity seems like it’s positioned to start the online wars up again, three years after Breaking Bad went off the air. This time, though, it’s less accidental collateral damage, and more of a deliberate provocation. Gunn’s presence in the film is a potential catalyst on its own, but that’s only a small part of the story. Equity is consciously out to challenge how powerful women are treated, both in real-life executive roles, and in narrative films that explore them.
Gunn stars as Naomi Bishop, an ambitious investment banker fighting for promotion and recognition in a virtually all-male Wall Street workplace. She’s walking a difficult line in her company: If she comes on too strong, she could be seen as shrill, nagging, and unfeminine. If she holds back from the aggression her male peers show, she’s suddenly not competitive, in a highly charged, competitive environment. And no matter how terse, competent, and together she is, she’s still at the mercy of a checked-out boss who spends his time playing Jenga at his desk and smirking at Naomi about how the perceptions people have of her are more important than her actual successes. Naomi doesn’t seem to spend much time considering how she comes across to others. She charges ahead aggressively, with the same confidence and entitlement her co-workers bring to the table. But when she’s turned down for an expected promotion — “This doesn’t look like your year,” her boss shrugs — she’s forced to consider how her gender turns any hint of weakness into a desperate slide for the bottom of the heap.
Equity is being billed as the first female-led Wall Street thriller: it's the first release from Broad Street Pictures, a production company founded by producers Alysia Reiner (an Orange Is The New Black star) and Sarah Megan Thomas, with the coded-but-clear intention of bringing "more perspectives" to the screen. The female focus isn't just behind the camera: as Naomi struggles with the fallout of an IPO that replaced her as financier at the 11th hour, she also has to contend with her ambitious, resentful subordinate Erin (played by Thomas), a bank vice president who's finding her own career limited by Naomi's failure to penetrate the glass ceiling. A long-ago friend of Naomi's, Justice Department investigator Samantha Ryan (Reiner), is also trying to manipulate her to get dirt on a sleazy hedge-fund manager. As with virtually any Wall Street thriller, there's no loyalty in Equity, just conflicting agendas and underhanded ways to pursue them. But there's an extra edge in the idea that the women of Wall Street are in competition with each other first, and the men second. Early on, Naomi attends a women-only alumni networking group, and tells the other members frankly that she likes money and thinks women should be free to pursue power and success for the thrill alone. There's no sense of sisterhood or support, at the group or anywhere else.
Equity has been heavily compared to The Wolf Of Wall Street, but apart from the setting and the overall air of money-hungry amorality, there isn't much similarity. Wolf is a faced-paced, frequently comic look at the enthusiastically awful behavior of a real-life huckster; Equity is a grimmer, darker, more even-keeled story about corporate politics and gamesmanship. There's a lot going on in this story, and some of the threads are barely connected. Naomi's crucial, face-saving deal with an upstart tech company run by a grabby man-child (Samuel Roukin) is central to the action, but other sidelines — Naomi's lover Michael (James Purefoy), who plays her for insider intel; Sam's developing case against Michael's boss; Erin's secret pregnancy and second thoughts about her career — all crowd the narrative considerably.
And none of this is rushed or spoon-fed to the audience with the simple, flirty voiceover narration of films like Wolf Of Wall Street or The Big Short. Fox's script doesn't waste time on exposition, or on spelling out the themes. This is the rare movie that trusts its audience to be grown-ups, with decent IQs and attention spans, and a strong intellectual interest in the ways the characters consider boosting or betraying each other. There's a chilly formality to the locked-down cameras, the muted lighting, the quiet, insistent score, and the blunt, confrontational conversations. If Equity does resemble a recent Wall Street movie, it's David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis, with a financial-thriller plot replacing the movie-long limo-ride gimmick. But Menon's film is still closer to a Steven Soderbergh drama, with the many-limbed plot sprawl and the muted tone to match.
Equity's biggest struggle, though, is in finding a center that isn't repugnant. It's the same problem male-centric films like Wall Street or Boiler Room face, and it may just be part of the Wall Street movie tradition of finding greed and ambition fascinating but repellant, and focusing more on moral bankruptcy than on sympathy for any one character. But given that Equity is trying to make points about how women are treated, it becomes a problem when those women are intentionally hard to connect with. When Naomi turns into a larger-than-life villain, screaming profanity at an underling for daring to bring her a chocolate-chip cookie that's light on the chips, it's a stunningly awful moment, and it reveals her as a victim not of her circumstances, but of her own shallowness.
Still, much as with Skyler in Breaking Bad, Naomi has the chance to start conversations that could actually be as insightful and revealing as the story around her. Equity openly invites viewers to examine their prejudices against women in power, and the way they're judged differently from men. The film doesn't insult its audience by making excuses for Naomi, or trying to soften her into something kind, maternal, and misunderstood. (A sequence where she seeks out Sam at home and meets her young kids — whom she faces with a fragile, telling tension — is typical of how subtle Equity can be about thinking through its characters' mindsets without spelling them out.) But it does question whether she's done anything exceptional to deserve the judgment she gets, and it openly asks whether she had any other options. The film packs in so much material that it's bound to have dead ends and weak spots, but its confidence in its provocations is compelling. Naomi faces an uphill battle for recognition, and given the lack of gimmicks and gags, so does Equity. But the conversations it wants to start are well worth having.
Equity opens in New York and Los Angeles theaters on July 29th, with a national rollout to follow August 12th.