Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Woman Under the Influence

Not long ago I saw Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and spoke about how it was one of the most uncomfortable portrayals of a bad marriage I'd ever seen. Well, at least they had the script's dark humor to prevent it from becoming too troubling, and there weren't any children around to give their relationship real consequences. A Woman Under the Influence has neither of those mitigating circumstances, and it was quite possibly even more painful to watch. Previously I've known John Cassavetes as an actor, but he was also an acclaimed director of independent movies, and this is his most celebrated film. He pretty much had to do everything to get it on screens, securing his own financing and even personally seeing to the distribution. No one really wanted anything to do with the story, and I can see why.

Cassavetes' wife Gena Rowlands plays Mabel, and Peter Falk plays her husband Nick. They have three young children. She has some mental problems, and he has little patience for them. Disaster pretty much ensues. Early on as they're still introducing the characters, Mabel seems a bit odd, acting inappropriately in a bar when Nick stands her up for a date night due to work and then seeming a bit off when making a big early lunch for him and his coworkers after a long shift. Then Nick yells at her at the table, and you start to see just how badly off their marriage could really be. And then things just get worse and worse. She becomes irresponsible with the children, off-putting to those around her, and eventually seems to be genuinely disturbed. But while Rowlands' performance is great and the movie would be good just examining the life of someone like her character, the real gut wrenching stuff comes from how other people react to her, especially Nick, who doesn't handle her issues well at all, and the way it impacts their family. It gets pretty brutal, and doesn't really relent even the plot gives itself an opportunity to. In fact, it might just get worse. Well-directed, well-acted, difficult stuff. I can't imagine ever wanting to see this again, but it's as good a drama you'll find at showing real life without pulling any punches.

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