When Still Alice was released, some of my friends had an interesting and emotional discussion on Facebook about whether to see the movie. In particular, those who had personal experience with family and loved ones with Alzheimer's expressed concerns that it would be too much to take, revisiting the anguish of their real-life difficulties.
I haven't had to deal with this problem yet, so I’m speaking as an outsider. But I'd guess they could watch Still Alice without too much upheaval. Julianne Moore is very good … playing a terminal patient is guaranteed Oscar bait, but Moore doesn't overplay her hand, never seems to be begging for an Oscar. There is an intelligence to her portrayal that means she never completely disappears in the role … we are always aware that we are seeing a great actress, not a person with Alzheimer’s. But that intelligence respects the audience. Moore allows us to gradually come to terms with Alice’s situation, just as Alice herself does.
The setup is almost like a horror movie. The situation is established: the main character has a devastating disease. And we know it’s the kind of disease that gets worse over time. Maybe I see too many apocalyptic dramas about viruses that endanger humanity, but I wondered if perhaps Still Alice would play like zombie-virus movie, making the audience squeamish by the inevitability of the outcome. I wouldn't be surprised if this was partly what made my friends uncertain about the movie. Not the zombie angle, but the inevitability of it all. Who needs to see that, when you are living it?
But the film makers refuse to jack it up. It never transforms into a horror story. We see the effects the disease has on Alice’s family, friends, and colleagues, we see the progression of the disease, but the movie’s strength comes on the face of Julianne Moore. She lets us into Alice’s mental world … we look at her face and we know where she is on the continuum. As I say, it’s a very intelligent approach to the character. It is also extremely effective, although it requires an actor as good as Moore to pull it off.
That refusal to push the hysteria is why Still Alice never comes close to being a horror movie. And I think it is why the film can be watched by people who had qualms in advance. It is real, it is sad, but it isn't crushing … the ending is as hopeful as possible, and the basic structure ends up more like a TV movie than a cinema classic. Julianne Moore raises the film’s impact, but without her, Still Alice would be fairly prosaic.