Alyce Kills (2013) review

Alyce KillsThere is an interesting test of wills that exists within the confines of Jay Lee’s Alyce Kills that doesn’t have to do with any of the characters but instead is two kinds of movies fighting against each other. Now ordinarily this would be a bad thing that would result in a muddled mess of a narrative but instead, this film balances between the two extremes quite well. That said, the extremes in question could alienate some viewers as they aren’t the most accessible in the world but I found it a nice, unpleasant mix of the two: a shallow, twenty-something self obsession character study and a cautionary take on a sufferer of mental illness gently, slowly nudged over the edge of a violent, depraved cliff.

One of the things that sets the film apart (aside from the duality described above) is the look of the thing. There is an amazing style to the way it is filmed that made it feel a little like The Virgin Suicides at times – hazy and unsteady and compelling to look at. Other times you’ll note the standard ‘twitch and shake’ shots and quick chop edits that accompany many mental breakdown movies but they really don’t feel that burdensome or take away from the overall feel. Also, the use of color at different points in the film is quite striking and lovely to watch wash over the set pieces and the actors. Saturated washes in bars and nightclubs, sickly muted colors in sickly, muted places and cold blues and greys in appropriate spots. It seems well thought out and well executed.

I’ll touch on the plot in a moment but I wanted to highlight three of the actors that turn in fantastic performances:

Eddie Rouse as Rex: Rex is a seemingly dangerous drug dealer/philosopher who skirts the lines of his own moral hypocrisy with a near never-ending flood of disparate thoughts and ideas, street idioms and growl and grumble that never allows you to nail him down one way or other. Rouse does a simply fantastic job of handling this character and his rambling and makes him very compelling and three-dimensional.

Rena Owen as Danielle: Danielle is the office manager at the financial services place Alyce works who carries a major jones for screwing with and undermining Alyce. Initially this feels unsteady and kind of awkward but as she becomes bolder, more confident we see the true, sad, broken person beneath. Her show of hard-edged bravado is a reach and an ill-fated effort and you don’t get that with a less skilled actor in the role.

Jade Dornfeld as Alyce: Jade Dornfeld is given the enviable (or unenviable) task of playing Alyce from conception at the start of the film to striking, crazy conclusion. I was reminded of Angela Bettis in May, Joel David Moore in Spiral and Katharine Isabelle in American Mary when watching miss Dornfeld handle and control Alyce. There is a delicate skill to ramping up a character who must traverse a long arc and Dornfeld absolutely does it well. Initially you feel a sense of annoyance to her seemingly brainless, rootless girlyness and lack of substance or real feeling. As we go, though, this morphs and changes and becomes not only a weapon but a misdirection tool not only for the unwitting in the film but for us watching as well. Simply put, she kicked this role’s ass.

The story starts with its focus on two twenty-something women, Alyce (Dornfeld) and Carroll (Tamara Feldman) who seem to be drifting through life at about 6 inches off the ground. They don’t appear to be particularly interesting and certainly seem shallow and vapid. This is really a misnomer though because in Carroll what we really have is a woman putting on a brassy show to seem normal and composed (but really not) and Alyce putting on a mask of indifference and disdain toward most but seeming to struggle in her own mind and her own skin. These women perform well but are struggling dramatically just beneath the surface for very different reasons. After an unpleasant run-in with a cheating boyfriend (and foul tempered new girlfriend), the women track down some drugs via Carroll’s steady dealer Rex and make their way back to Alyce’s apartment in a bit of a wine/ecstasy haze.

An uncomfortable scene in Alyce’s apartment gives way to a tense scene on the roof of the building where an unfortunate accident/prank casts Carroll over the side of the building an onto the sidewalk below. In a panic, Alyce gets back to her apartment in complete shock. The next morning starts her slow, measured descent into madness initially punctuated by visions of her dead friend and a visit from a canvassing cop. Turns out the friend isn’t dead and is in the ICU clinging to life. Alyce seems completely unable to process this but has the wherewithal to lie to the cop about Carroll going to the roof alone. A visit to the hospital soon after starts in motion a series of events that you see coming in the general sense but not to the levels to which they go both emotionally and viscerally.

Alyce seems to have tapped into some kind of call and response within her fragile psyche that responds to the tragedy of Carroll’s fall as almost a starting off point of ‘kill or be killed’ as a life mantra. Alyce begins to exhibit stranger and stranger behavior and the humanity we saw early on becomes less and less of who she is. The slightly aloof/entitled sensibility stays with her though and so as her actions and how people react to her become more volatile, more scary, she seems to regard dealing with it as an annoyance. An inconvenience.

The final act of the film shifts into high gear in such a way that there is very little time to catch breath or take stock. Alyce seems to have given over completely to the power and control of having no human ties and exacts the kind of revenge/cruelty that is really only reserved for people or things deemed worthless. I wouldn’t have been that interested in this turn had it not been for a decision on her part to not follow through in one particular case. I found this choice (on the writer’s part) to be damned brilliant because it really throws into question what state her mind is actually in and how aware she really is of the morality of all she does.

Anyway, the final act is bracing and very bloody with the kind of in-your-face violence that made me wince more than once. More than just the violence, it is the business-like calmness that she exhibits that chills you. In more than one sequence you find yourself hoping for escape, for survival on the part of lousy people she tracks and confronts. Her coldness inspires it which is impressive to say the least. The film on the whole was quite good and endlessly interesting. From the shallow start off to the frentic and unnerving final act, Alyce Kills is a great tug-of-war between morality and bloody inhuman tendencies filtered through a well executed lens and strong actors.

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