‘Alice, Darling’ and the Importance of Rhythm
It’s okay to have a quiet ending to your story. But you have to pace it properly.
I have an acquaintance who likes to grumble about current pop culture, which he finds almost universally unsatisfying. During these tirades he will inevitably refer to the mid-1990s as an almost Golden Age for him, because it was the height of the Indie Film bubble. He feels like for a while he could roll into any movie theater at any time and catch a movie that was maybe not brilliant, but was interesting. A movie that wasn’t about superheroes or young wizards or endless car crashes that defy the laws of physics, but about people doing shifty or weird things and dealing with the consequences.
In a sense my grumbly friend is not wrong—while those interesting, human-scale films still exist, they predominantly exist on the streaming channels, and discovery is an issue. Despite being beamed directly into people’s homes, it can actually be harder to keep up with the release of new films, especially when they’re not accompanied by a loud and unavoidable marketing campaign.
But these movies still exist. Consider Alice, Darling, starring Anna Kendrick as a woman so totally gaslighted and emotionally abused by her boyfriend it takes several days of being cut off from him for her to even realize how bad it is. It’s exactly the sort of well-made, interesting little movie my grumpy friend was talking about. Three decades ago he might have rolled into a theater and caught Alice, Darling on a whim.
And then complained about it. Because while Alice, Darling is a well-made little story, it makes a pretty big mistake with its ending. Because it doesn’t really have one.
And Then Everyone Clapped
Alice Darling does a mixed job with its characters. On the one hand, the relationships between Alice (Anna Kendrick) and her boyfriend Simon (Charlie Carrick) and between Alice and her two best friends Tess (Kaniehtiio Horn) and Sophie (Wunmi Mosaku) are wonderfully sketched. Without going overboard, writer Alanna Francis and director Mary Nighy (daughter of Bill Nighy) convey Alice’s clear stress around Simon and the strain on her friendship. This feels very lived in—anyone of a certain age will recall (or is going through) that period in your life when your friends start coupling up, and all the patterns of your friendships shift around that. And some folks kind of get lost in their new relationships and hanging out with them becomes fraught and problematic. The film captures this tension really, really well.
And the abuse is also calibrated perfectly. Simon is not physically abusive. He’s not your typical movie or TV show abuser who shouts and slaps and sets your clothes on fire, then kills your dog while tears stream down his face. His abuse is subtle. It’s all about consequences. Alice knows if she is late getting home from something, there will be consequences, and so she works hard to avoid those consequences even though they are purely emotional and verbal in nature. In essence, Simon has trained her to be obedient by making his displeasure really, really unpleasant while also making it 100% her fault. It’s terrifying, and also feels very lived in. There are far too many relationships that operate like this.
On the other hand, the rest of the characters’ lives feels very empty. What do these people do? What are they like outside of these relationships? We have no idea.
This might have been a conscious decision in the service of efficiency—the story is chiefly concerned with these relationship dynamics, so it could make sense to ignore everything else as unnecessary. It doesn’t matter if Alice is a food critic or a gig worker or a welder, all that matters is how she is being crushed to death by the emotional abuse of her partner, and how her friends try to understand her and help her while also being simultaneously super duper pissed off at her for allowing it to happen.
Knowing her friends are on their last nerve with her, Alice lies to Simon in order to go away with them to celebrate Tess’ birthday at her remote family cabin, and the trip is a balm to her. Without phone reception and in the company of her two friends, Alice slowly starts to realize just how weird and terrifying her relationship is. Then, just as she’s starting to admit she has to do something, Simon shows up, having stalked her there. He’s all smiles, but there is a malevolent edge to it all—this is obviously Simon’s power play. He’s come to tuck Alice back under his arm and assert his authority. And he almost pulls it off, pressuring Alice to drive home with him a few days early and punishing her for lying to him—making himself the victim, of course.
But then Tess and Sophie leap into action. Just as he’s about to drive off with Alice, they stop him by force, and Alice scampers from the car and shelters between them while Simon rages. He shouts, he screams, but of course he’s a coward so he eventually drives off with some nasty words.
And then the movie ends.
Note: Poochie Died on His Way Back to His Home Planet
Now, there’s an argument to be made that this ending is fine, even ideal. Alice has done the emotional work, and had her breakthrough—she chooses life and clings to her friends instead of going back to her douchebag boyfriend who treats her like shit. There’s a throughline in the story that works for this.
The problem is one of pacing. It doesn’t matter if the ending makes sense, it simply arrives too soon.
The story is structured like a slow-burn thriller. We’re introduced to Alice, we’re shown the extent of her trauma, we’re given the conflict, and then we’re thrust into the tension of her lie to Simon and the efforts of her friends to make her see how fucked up her life has become. We are also conspicuously shown a wood splitting maul which acts as an ominous omen, because we’re trained by horror movies that if they show you an ax of some sort in Act One, it’s going to be buried in someone’s head by Act Three.
The moment when Alice is almost clear and then her triumphant rebirth is ruined by Simon’s arrival feels like the perfect punch at that moment of the story—and establishes Simon as the villain and active antagonist. For a hot second—up until this point, Simon has been lurking on the edges of the narrative. They could have left him there, but they chose to bring him to the forefront of the story, and he blooms into clarity—he’s the bad guy here. He’s the Big Bad. And Tess and Sophie show up carrying that maul. Ah, shit, things are about to get bloody, you might think.
So when he walks away at the end, it feels too soon. Having introduced their Big Bad, they ... do nothing with him. He drives off and that’s it, Alice is healthier and presumably will be okay. But it feels like a song that has ended on the three instead of the four, there’s a sense of it being a false cadence. You’re primed to expect Simon to return, for there to be a final confrontation where Alice has to actively reject him instead of letting her friends do it for her. This wouldn’t have to be physical or action-packed—we don’t need boiled rabbits and attempts to stab people. Emotional conflict would work just fine. The film just feels like it ends about twenty minutes too soon, like someone dropped the last 15 pages of the script and couldn’t be bothered to look for it.
It’s exacerbated by the fact that the movie does lip along for another ten minutes or so in a quiet sequence that feels exactly like the calm before the shitstorm in a thriller or horror movie, that moment when you think the protagonist has escaped the horror, only to have everything go sideways. Is it possible this is intentional, that Nighy and Francis purposefully play with horror and thriller tropes? Sure, it’s possible. But just because it’s intentional doesn’t mean it works: It still feels like we never get to the fireworks factory.
This doesn’t mean the movie’s not worth watching—it is a compelling character study and a nuanced exploration of destructive relationships. But it could have been better. Then again, Could Have Been Better is the title of my memoir, so ...
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Next week: Severance and missed opportunities.
People who complain that current pop culture is somehow worse or less interesting than the pop culture from their youth are among the most boring people in the universe.
Is “NOT BRILLIANT BUT INTERESTING” the title of my memoir? I wish.
Like the rest of you, I impatiently await the prophecized movie that’s about superheroes AND young wizards AND endless car crashes that defy the laws of physics. What’s wrong with Hollywood? This would be a SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY situation.
Someone smarter than me will someday write a paper about the way our entire existence is now centered on thumbnails. Every entertainment decision I make I have to make using just a half-inch image as my sole source of information.
Believe it or not, the last time I went to a movie theater to see a film without knowing anything about it whatsoever was back in 1994 and the movie was Pulp Fiction. I remember thinking that any movie with John Travolta in it could not possibly be any good.
Just like life! Yeah, the whole “my story is good because it is as meaningless and random as real life” is not the flex you think it is, because the whole point of fiction is to elevate our shared experiences, not simply replicate them. Listen, I’m not joking. This is my job.
She is 38 years old and I just turned a little more into dust.
For me, it was like I’d spent the previous 10 years doing literally everything as a big, amorphous group of people to suddenly doing everything with just one person who decidedly did not get my jokes. So of course I married her, because having a spouse who doesn’t get your jokes is like having a Roman servant whispering “Don’t forget you’re mortal” in your ear all the time.
Most notably, the relationships between me and my cats.
The film zeroes in on the power of this sort of manipulation: Alice lies to Simon to go on a trip because his reaction would be unreasonable, but when he shows up to absolutely ruin her trip he drapes himself in justice because she lied to him. It’s terrifying, really.
And if you’re me and my unresolved emotional issues, you get excited by this thought.
I’ve done this with novels and it often … improves things, to be fair <bursts into tears>
Footnote 8 made me laugh out loud.
"Resting Asshole Face". Reminds me of every Phil Collins lp.