Directors: Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland
MPAA Rating: (for mature thematic material, and brief language including a sexual reference)
Running Time: 1:41
Release Date: 12/5/14 (limited); 1/16/15 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | January 15, 2015
There's a single cut in Still Alice that comes close to approximating what it must be like to live with Alzheimer's. One moment, Alice (Julianne Moore), the central character, is going about her life in New York City, and in the next shot, we see the beach from the window of some house in which we have never stepped foot in the film. Alice is here, but we have no idea for how long she has been here or, for that matter, where "here" is.
The reason the edit works as well as it does is because of its simplicity. We don't fully comprehend just how jarring the cut is until we notice that Alice is completely comfortable in these new surroundings. Maybe it's just an act on her part. Maybe she is as uncertain of her surroundings as we are.
Whatever the case may be, we soon realize that months have passed without our knowledge, but we are keenly aware that the time has gone by without our realizing it. That is the horror of that dreadful disease. It slowly chips away at a person's memory and forces one to confront the present moment.
When that moment of immediate lucidity arrives, though, it is filled with helplessness and despair, because surely there is a reason the person is in this place at this time and with these people. The disease is especially cruel in the way it does allow for the brain to understand that something is wrong with the situation, and that doesn't even start to discuss how it gradually removes the memories of people one has known for years upon years or decades upon decades, let alone the effect on the people who are forgotten.
The film, written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, tells Alice's story from her point of view until that is no longer possible. Alice begins the film as a linguistics professor at a New York university. She is married to John (Alec Baldwin) and has three adult children (played by Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish, and Kristen Stewart). She starts to forget certain words, and after running some tests, a neurologist informs her that she has early-onset Alzheimer's. There are flashes of hope here and there, but the course of Alice's story is an irreversible freefall.
The moments of optimism feel unearned and, at one point, cruel, but in a strange way, that is a sign of how unapologetically and correctly bleak the majority of the film is. After all, the setup to the scene that feels unnecessarily punishing toward the character is only "optimistic" if one considers a person's decision to put her death in her own hands as a viable, dignified option. At a certain point, the disease will not grant her dignity. She has a limited amount of time during which she will retain the limited power she has, and soon after her diagnosis, Alice devises a plan to ensure that she can use that control over her own life through death.
The cruelty is not in the general setup but in the specific machinations of Glatzer and Westmoreland's screenplay (based on the novel by Lisa Genova) to undermine Alice's plan. When Alice reveals it to us and to herself through a video, it seems simple, but the design does not take into account how deteriorated her memory eventually will be. The whole sequence is confused, especially considering that it begins by accident instead of by Alice's original design (making it, in a way, doubly harsh). It's an odd attempt to build tension out of a decision that had been made in earnest, but now, it forces us to worry that she will carry through with it because it is "not her time."
The other scene that doesn't quite fit is a big speech. It's a moment of minor triumph as Alice reads with the aid of a highlighter, drops the marker, and soldiers on despite the mishap.
What these two scenes seem to be doing is subverting our expectations. The second suggests optimism for Alice's condition. The first one described, which comes later in the film, destroys even the pragmatic hope that she will be able to control her ultimate destiny.
They make such an impact in terms of seeming out of place because the rest of the film is not one of achievements for the character or of emotional manipulation on the part of the filmmakers. The story and the way it's presented do not need subversion. It's a precisely escalating tragedy of the everyday struggles of Alzheimer's.
She cannot remember the recipe for a dish that she has prepared without fail for her youngest daughter every year. Her son introduces his mother to his new girlfriend in the kitchen, and by the time the family sits down to eat, Alice doesn't recall meeting the girlfriend. The members of the family do what they can. John still has a job about which to worry, and although he starts in denial about his wife's condition, we can start to notice that he becomes more realistic about the idea of having a future without his wife. Her children have their own lives, too, although there are a few scenes of her getting closer to her youngest daughter (Stewart). That segment of the story ends as it must.
Despite that pair of scenes, Still Alice works and, at times, with assured, depressing clarity. Moore's performance is most of the reason for that. It allows us a comprehensive understanding of how much Alice has deteriorated without using words, the emotional pain and confusion that cannot be put into words, and the inescapable fate of becoming trapped in a state where words are impossible. It's a great, uncompromising performance that anchors a fine film.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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