Thankfully, whatever detachments I experienced before were most certainly not to be found with this film. It is a harrowing, uncomfortable, unpleasant film that is a masterwork of filmmaking and acting. It is one of the most difficult films I’ve watched and that’s part of what makes it such a remarkable work.
It’s somewhat appropriate that I watched this the day after a screening of “Silver Linings Playbook,” as both films tackle similar subjects, i.e. people whose lives are shattered by mental illness and try to find a way to pick up the pieces. But unlike “Silver Linings Playbook,” there are no easy solutions, no neat and tidy conclusions, thus making it both a much less attractive movie, but one that feels infinitely more real and poignant.
Gena Rowlands gives an amazing performance as neurotic housewife Mabel. Mabel loves and is loved by her construction worker husband, Nick (Peter Falk) and their three children. But a creeping mental illness slowly renders her incapable of performing basic social functions in public or private. She’ll have strange outbursts of emotion, display odd mannerisms and even become a threat to the safety of her (and others’) children.
This is only the third of his films I’ve watched but by now it has become steadily apparent that Cassavetes isn’t necessarily interested in telling a story so much as he is interested in capturing emotional truth. There isn’t an arc, necessarily, to follow here.
There is, however, a stark look at a family on the verge of breaking, and Cassavetes plunges us right into the middle of it. There are perhaps few directors more skilled at capturing the honesty and verisimilitude of a moment than he and this is certainly true here, to the point where it rarely feels as though we are watching a film and not simply given a window into this broken family’s life.
As brilliant as Cassavetes’ direction is, though, the glue of the film is Rowlands’ performance. She’s incredible. Her depiction of Mabel feels so genuine and real that it’s almost scary how invested she seems to be in the role. Mabel is a woman who it’s never certain how she’ll act or react, and Rowlands walks that dramatic tightrope brilliantly.
“A Woman Under the Influence” is a difficult film. I didn’t necessarily enjoy watching it, but I was taken in by it and the craft on display. It also showcased how much Cassavetes had evolved as a director, almost as though work such as “Faces” and “Shadows” were dry runs ramping up to this film.
Next week I’ll review “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” for my penultimate entry in this Cassavetes series, followed by “Opening Night.” Once Cassavetes is wrapped up, I’ll begin a series looking at some of the films of Richard Linklater, including “Slacker,” “Dazed and Confused,” “Waking Life,” “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset.”