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A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

September 10, 2009

8/10 Questionable Babysitters

The first John Cassavetes movie I’ve ever seen, and man, what a freakin’ powerhouse.

A Woman Under The Influence follows the life of a husband struggling to keep his family and marriage together as his mentally unstable wife slowly declines from socially awkward to borderline insane.

The movie doesn’t really follow a normal plot structure, but rather creates the drama by more or less dropping the audience into the middle of this harrowing crisis as we witness a day in the life of a family coming apart. Now, I’ve never been mentally ill (as far as I know), nor have I ever had to live with someone mentally ill, but I can only imagine that this movie gets pretty damn close to what it must be like. It doesn’t take long before you’re invested in this family and want to see things return to normalcy for them, and as a result it often times becomes an experience that’s nothing short of painful to watch; painful in a good way.

Being that this movie isn’t very complicated in its execution and feels like it could pass for a stage play, the two deal breakers that make this movie stand out are its acting and writing. The mentally sound husband here is played by Peter Falk – the guy who played Columbo, for anyone out there who watched Columbo – and, boy, does he nail it. All the emotions that would come with watching the person you love, the mother to your children, transform into a stranger before your eyes – all the anger, the guilt, the confusion – all of it comes nothing short of naturally to Falk as he makes this tough role his own.

But the scene stealer in A Woman Under The Influence is the said woman, clearly influenced by her craziness, played by Gena Rowlands. I can’t say that I’ve seen Gena Rowlands in anything other than her bit role in The Notebook, but holy hell, this is arguably some of the best acting I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s as though Cassavetes went out to the local mental ward, pulled Gena Rowlands out of her straitjacket, stood her in front a camera, convinced her that everything written inside the script she was gnawing on is actually her real life, and then said, “Action!“. What Rowlands brings to the screen in this movie is something that really can’t be justified in text, but there’s something to be said about taking something manufactured like a movie script and turn it into something that feels overwhelmingly genuine. Rowlands and Falk accomplish this together in such a profound and convincing way that it makes me cringe even further when I think back to how Revolutionary Road tried to go about capturing this sentiment.

And the great thing about the writing here is that it almost feels non-existent. I’m sure a great script existed, but the dialogue doesn’t feel rehearsed, it feels like it’s spoken from the heart. It’s as though the actors were given an idea of what to say and how to act/react in various situations but were told to improvise accordingly rather than recite their lines. And it totally works in everyone’s favor.

I really didn’t know what to expect going into this movie, only that I’d heard it was a Cassavetes classic and that it compelled the guy who writes the descriptions on the Netflix DVD sheafs to completely disregard detailing what the movie is about in lieu of going on a tirade about how this revolutionized the way he viewed movies. It’s a bit on the long side and you probably need to be in the mood for a talking heads movie to be totally into it, but A Woman Under the Influence is easily one of the more satisfying movie discoveries I’ve come across as of late. I can only hope that the rest of Cassavetes’ movies are this good.

So thank your lucky stars and give your significant other a big kiss and a bearhug, because, Sugar, things could be a whole lot worse.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 16, 2009 12:04 pm

    Caught this movie last year, but I gotta step it up and check out other works by Cassavetes. My friend recently got the Cassavetes box set from Criterion, I’m jealous.

    • September 16, 2009 12:23 pm

      Same here, heard he’s done a lot of good stuff. I vote for stealing your friend’s shit asap.

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