The Oscar train stops here – Julianne Moore is devastatingly good, and certainly worthy of all the many awards that will certainly come her way, as a linguistics professor succumbing to early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in Still Alice. Moore, who has a number of astonishing acting feats under her belt, has perhaps never been as affecting, nor as raw, as she is in the part of a woman losing the once-formidable control she had over her mind and body.
Alzheimer’s is certainly not an easy topic for any film to cover, let alone to cover well, but Moore, along with writer Lisa Genova and directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, rise to the occasion, crafting a narrative that fully communicates the disease’s creeping horror while never dissolving into cable-TV levels of melodrama. Still Alice is not only a well-made film, but also an important one in how honestly it depicts its protagonist’s struggle against the disease. There are few Hollywood moments here, and any intentionally rousing ones don’t feel overcooked. For the most part, Still Alice favors small and intimate discussions, character moments which pack an emotional wallop without sacrificing their sincerity.
Moore is at once Still Alice‘s most honest note and its dominating force. Glatzer and Westmoreland occasionally make interesting choices with the camera, but mostly they just leave it to document her beautiful, yet withdrawn, features. It proves a smart decision. Moore is utterly mesmerizing, always maintaining complete control even as she’s asked to convey those most disconcerting of emotions, from panic to desolation to eerie remove. The actress is immediately sympathetic, but she also understands the limits to which an audience should be asked to sympathize, and she never asks for pity.
Alice is a strong-willed, intelligent and pragmatic woman, but certainly not a perfect one – she has difficulty seeing situations from other viewpoints than her own, and her wit can sometimes come off as condescending. But, as depicted by Moore, those flaws just make her more human, and make watching her unravel against her own will all the more horrific.
Moore simply doesn’t hit a false note here. Expect the heart-stopping scene in which she finally breaks news of the diagnosis to her husband (Alec Baldwin) to reappear on Oscar night. Shot with minimal intrusion by Glatzer and Westmoreland, it allows the actress to spectacularly unpack all the emotional turmoil she’s been suppressing up until that point, in a way that will ring painfully true to all who have experienced a loss they can’t quite comprehend.
The majority of Still Alice‘s most affecting scenes aren’t that overtly dramatic, though. The ways in which Moore’s features darken and deepen throughout the film are just noticeable enough to horrify. As the disease takes its toll, Alice’s eyes grow duller, their spark muffled; her shoulders slump, as if she’s drifting off to sleep even mid-conversation; her jaw hangs just loose enough to be perceptible. Though her handling of Alice’s verbal interactions is first-class, Moore’s most stunning work is done in chilling silence.
It’s hard to find fault with a film that provides its lead actress with such a dazzling showcase, though one weakness of Still Alice is that it ultimately neglects its supporting players. Baldwin is stoicism incarnate as Alice’s loving and patient (though clearly hurting) husband, while Kristen Stewart does excellent work as her irresolute daughter, but the narrative focuses so heavily on its lead’s struggles that it doesn’t really flesh out their reactions to Alice’s diagnosis.
As good as both performers are, their obvious and perhaps solitary purpose is to provide support for Moore. Baldwin and Stewart, along with Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish in even slighter roles, do that ably. But that their sides of the story are almost entirely missing (especially given that Alice’s children learn that they’ll almost certainly also develop Alzheimer’s down the road) makes Still Alice, at least if taken as a portrayal of Alzheimer’s in its entirety, feel somewhat incomplete.
The undivided attention paid to Alice is a problem, to be sure, but it does allow Still Alice to succeed as a staggering starring vehicle for Moore. In that sense, the only other film from this year it’s on par with is Wild, which sent Reese Witherspoon along the Pacific Coast Trail and, in doing so, allowed the actress to stretch her dramatic muscles in hitherto unseen ways. Still Alice doesn’t have that movie’s jaw-dropping scenery. All it has is Moore’s performance – but, even with the film’s lack of attention to its other components, that’s more than enough to completely enthrall.
Julianne Moore is devastatingly good, charting Alice's decline with subtlety and grace. It's just a slight disappointment that her Oscar-worthy performance is not just the crux of Still Alice, but also the film's entirety.