Saturday, June 22, 2013

2013 Blind Spot Series: A Woman Under the Influence

Written and directed by John Cassavetes, A Woman Under the Influence is the story about a woman’s life unraveling as she behaves erratically to the point that her family commits her for psychiatric treatment.  The film is a look into the world of manic depression and a woman’s breakdown as it would have a great effect on her family.  Starring Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, and Fred Draper.  A Woman Under the Influence is a harrowing yet mesmerizing film from John Cassavetes.

The film is the story about the wife of a blue-collar man whose eccentric behavior starts to take its toll on her family including her mother, her mother-in-law, her three kids, and her husband.  Though this woman known as Mabel (Gena Rowlands) is someone who can be outgoing and also exciting, she’s also very troubled emotionally and mentally as she sometimes has no idea what’s going around her.  At the same time, Mabel can be crazy around people as they are often freaked out as her husband Nick (Peter Falk) has to pick up the pieces and answer to people who have strange encounters with her.  Nick also has to be there for their children yet he has very little clue of how to take care of them or deal with Mabel.

John Cassavetes’ screenplay takes its time to explore a woman who is troubled where there are no answers to what is happening to her.  Is she drinking or just really mentally ill?  Cassavetes doesn’t provide answers for that as he showcases the life of Mabel and Nick where they do love each other but they also can’t stand each other sometimes.  Nick can be very angry to the point that he hits Mabel to calm her down while Mabel, in an erratic state, would see or do things that would make her go completely insane.  The film’s first half is about Nick and Mabel’s relationship and Mabel’s own mental issues as it would intensify in the second act where Nick starts to lose control of his emotions as he takes it out on his friends.  The third act is very poignant in not only for this long sequence that takes place six months later at their home but also as it’s focused on Mabel as she returns home from treatment.

Cassavetes’ direction is very engaging as he goes for a very realistic shooting style that recalls the idea of cinema verite where he shoots everything on location with some grainy film stock.  There’s a looseness to the direction where there is an element of unpredictability but also a simmering tension that is happening as far as Mabel’s behavior is happening.  Notably as Cassavetes uses a lot of hand-held cameras and unique compositions to capture the drama of a woman breaking down mentally as there are things where it is very confrontational in some of the action.  Particularly in a scene during the second act where Mabel starts to act out emotionally and mentally as if she’s about to be committed.  The direction also has these very chilling moments in the drama such as a scene where Mabel throws a party for her children and their friends that is a bit disturbing at times because of her very lively and erratic behavior as if she is acting like a child while a man is watching. 

It would intensify when Nick and his mother return home where it would lead to some emotional blow-out.  Yet, that sequence would be tamed in comparison to the film’s final sequence when Mabel returns home from treatment only to be at home with her family where there’s that sense of simmering tension happening.  Notably as the camera is gazing on Mabel as she could either breakdown or something else is happening while Nick is sitting next to her as the person sitting across from her is her father.  It is all about who should be there for Mabel and its aftermath where it raises many questions into whether she will ever be all right or not.  Overall, Cassavetes creates a visceral yet unsettling film on depression from the perspective of a woman.

Cinematographers Mitch Breit and Al Ruban do excellent work with the photography where it doesn‘t play into any particular visual style in favor of realism with a bit of grain in some of its interior and exterior settings including for the scenes at night.  Editors David Armstrong, Sheila Viseltear, and Tom Cornwell do superb work with the editing by utilizing rhythmic cuts to capture some of the intensity of the drama.  Art director Phedon Papamichael does nice work with the look of the home Nick and Mabel live in that is quite quaint but also filled with some strange things.  The sound work and music score of Bo Harwood is wonderful for the realism in the sound as well as Harwood’s jazz-inspired score led by pianos along with some classical and opera pieces for the film’s music soundtrack that Mabel loves.

The film’s cast is brilliant as it features appearances from Fred Draper and Lady Rowlands as Mabel’s parents, Katherine Cassavetes as Nick’s mother, O.G. Dunn as a man Mabel meets in the bar early in the film, Mario Gallo as the father of a group of kids at the party Mabel throws, Eddie Shaw as Mabel’s psychiatrist Dr. Zapp, and as Nick and Mabel’s children, there’s Matthew Laborteaux, Matthew Cassel, and Christina Grisanti as the kids who are forces to watch a family drama unfold in front of them. 

Peter Falk is amazing as Nick as a blue-collar man who loves his wife but has a hard time trying to deal with her issues as he means well but can often get very angry where he will do things that are terrible.  Finally, there’s Gena Rowlands in a magnificent performance as Mabel as a housewife who is coming undone by her mental and emotional issues.  There’s moments where Rowlands can be very wild and lively while the sequence where she returns home show a woman on the verge of falling apart as it’s truly a performance for the ages.

A Woman Under the Influence is an outstanding film from John Cassavetes that features tremendous performances from Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk.  The film is definitely a realistic portrait into the look of mental illness and depression as well as how it can effect those who are closest to that person.  It’s also a film that doesn’t play to any kind of conventional dramatics in favor of something that is more engaging where it can also be unsettling to watch.  In the end, A Woman Under the Influence is a phenomenal film from John Cassavetes.

John Cassavetes Films: (Shadows (1959 film)) - (Too Late Blues) - (A Child is Waiting) - (Faces) - Husbands - (Minnie and Moskowitz) - (The Killing of a Chinese Bookie) - (Opening Night) - Gloria (1980 film) - (Love Streams) - (Big Trouble)

© thevoid99 2013


Dan Heaton said...

This is definitely a tough film to watch at times. Rowlands and Falk are amazing, and she makes us feel uncomfortable by making Mabel seems so real. I saw a little of this in Silver Linings Playbook recently, yet they never go this far.

thevoid99 said...

It was tough to watch yet I couldn't help but feel for everyone. It's my first Cassavetes film and wow... a way to be introduced by his work. There are moments that are quite intense yet I don't think can be matched at all. Gena Rowlands is just outstanding yet scary in this film.

Alex Withrow said...

My favorite John Cassavetes film and my favorite female performance of all time. Great review here, so glad you liked it.

thevoid99 said...

@Alex-Right now, I've seen 3 Cassavetes films. Gloria will come out tomorrow while I'm still doing work on The Killing of a Chinese Bookie as I have the longer cut of the film in my hard drive.