Directed by Martin Scorsese
I will do some minor spoilers for this film, but nothing overly big. So read at your own caution but I don’t think it’ll ruin the movie for you if you want some convincing to see this film.
First of all, this is a GREAT movie and among Marty’s best.
Secondly, this film should grant Scorsese amnesty from every being accused of failing to direct women.
Thirdly, Ellen Burstyn deserves recognition as one of the greatest actresses of all time and it’s a crime she often gets forgotten in comparison to Meryl Streep.
Now, as for the actual film, as you can tell I have a high opinion of it. The story would help set a precedent in Scorsese’s style as it fits under his long catalogue of “plotless” films, as they are often described. It’s a simple premise, a woman in an abusive relationship is suddenly freed by the abrupt death of her husband and sets out to find her place in the world along with her son.
The film itself functions as a subversion of typical American cinema. It begins with a classical credit sequence then opens to an idyllic depiction of a farm. Norman Rockwell and the opening of Wizard of Oz leaps into mind. We see the child Alice head towards her house singing a song. The misleading veneer is soon shattered by her foul language and displeasure with her situation, then we are dropped into an authentic world of abusive men, rash decisions, the compromise of dreams, hope, the relationships we have with each other, and ultimately, just how unpredictable life can be and how we have to make do and carry on. Even the perspective of the film shifts from a classic full frame to widescreen, indicating we aren’t in Kansas anymore. Again and again, we see glimpses of classic Americana and television reminding us of this picturesque lie that doesn’t exist and never has. But unlike many films that go down this route, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore never feels bitter, morose, and pessimistic. These are people with problems but they are also people with great qualities, that can surprise us and make us love them.
What sets this above many of Scorsese’s efforts is the strength of his characters, in particular Alice. This is a massive compliment to film in my eyes as I think great characters are a trademark of his films. Rarely has a woman felt so real. She has a short temper, big dreams, and tries her best to be a good mother. It’s easy to see many of the women I have known and loved in her. She is strong but vulnerable. Well meaning but constantly makes mistakes. It is through her that it becomes obvious that Burstyn is a dynamite actress and that she was indeed given control of this passion project and her collaboration with Scorsese truly brought out something special from both of them.
One of the things that drew me in was the cinematography. It often worked as an extension to Alice, reflecting her current mood. It circles her, almost floating, giving entire sequences an ethereal feel as she becomes swept up in her piano music and seeing. We feel her elation from her struggle of a life in these moments and can’t help but be hypnotized. In other moments of stress, Scorsese uses a more cinema verite style: the camera becomes shakier, the takes longer, and we feel almost as voyeurs to her dysfunction. You can almost predict the turns a sequence will take based on the visual aesthetic alone and this is quite simply a marvel.
I would go into her relationships in a bit more depth but I promised not to spoil the film. I will say that Kristofferson is excellent. He manages to take a character that could’ve easily been a caricature of masculinity and grounds him with a humanity that can only be accomplished by throwing yourself into a role completely. Keitel is great as always, making great use of his screentime by playing the audience in the same way he plays Alice. We know what will come but we are swept up in it just the same. I would also like to compliment, Billy Green Bush, for making his character Donald have glimpses of the soft side that likely kept Alice in a marriage with him, simply by emoting as his dialogue was incredibly limited.
The true most important relationship of the film, however, is of that with her son. They love each other but are put in a terrible situation that frequently shifts their dynamic into being either others capture, torturing each other with boredom, bad jokes, knee jerk emotional reactions, as well as moments of great touching compassion. The water fight between them is one of those rare moments in film that feels utterly real and brings up all sorts of nostalgia for moments I shared with my mother.
My final word is see it. If you like Scorsese see it. If you don’t like Scorsese, see it anyways. It might surprise you. I loved it.