When Alec Baldwin toasts his wife Julianne Moore with the words “To the most intelligent woman I’ve ever known,” you pretty much know what the Z to this sentence’s A is going to be, and the only question you might have is how many letters the film is going to hit on the way down. The answer is, not as many as it could have, but the descent is precipitous, because down is where this film goes, in a schematic way that is both embodied in and concealed by Julianne Moore’s performance, a step-by-step descent into a lifeless face with alternately wary and uncomprehending eyes.
In a season of movies where actors have to both portray and fight the onslaught of physical decay, Moore’s face is the go-to shot of this film, which charts her character’s losing battle against early-onset Alzheimer’s. But if you’re looking for the kindly glow of Eddie Redmayne’s twisted smile or the fierce vulnerability of the mask that Felicity Jones wears in Theory of Everything, then you’re in the wrong theatre. This story is quite deliberately about loss of intelligence and awareness in a hyper-intelligent and aware person, and it is all there in Moore’s face and eyes, which is why you will find yourself reading volumes into every one of her close-ups, to see not only where she is but where “she” is.
That loss of identity is the film’s primary concern, and everything else is subordinate to it, including pretty much every other actor on the screen. On this film’s list of priorities, Alice takes first place through fifth, and everybody else is sixth at most. Which is why I can’t tell if Alec Baldwin is a loving husband or an asshole, or whether Kate Bosworth is a cold unfeeling bitch or the unlucky inheritor of her mother’s control-freak muscle. This is especially frustrating because there is a very emotionally-charged subplot about attempted pregnancy and inherited propensities, and because we only see the climax of this subplot as one side of a phone conversation, it feels totally meaningless. Which the film reiterates by completely forgetting about it thereafter. And yes, this is a story about forgetting everything, even your own personality, but still.
The only character who’s anything more than a series of reaction shots is Alice’s daughter Lydia, played by Kristen Stewart. Which casting may be enough to put some people off the film entirely, but I have no problem with her, and since in this part she is supposed to be an aspiring actress who may or may not have talent, Stewart is playing into her perceived weaknesses, which to me is a smart move. She doesn’t have to be any better than her reputation in order to get audience members to think, “Well, she’s just playing herself, which is what she always does.” Except that she is also playing the character which the story requires, and she does it very well. She’s the only one who asks Alice what it’s like to have this disease, and since in Alice’s life, A is for Analysis, it’s a bonding moment between them. She is obviously the answer to the question of caretaking the moment she first appears, because her character begins the film as far from caring as you can get (more schematics). And she delivers the final gut punch of the film, which replaces an unmentioned monologue in the novel with a very specific speech that brilliantly doubles down on the moment by picking something that both echoes and transfigures everything we’ve just watched—a speech that serves as a wide shot to all the movie’s close-ups and makes the film’s title both defiant and deeply ironic.
But in the end, it’s Moore’s movie. She’s in every scene. She is the sun around which everyone revolves, and the meticulous way in which she fades and contracts and withdraws into herself like a black hole is terrifying and fearless. She totally deserves every award in the world can throw at her. And frankly, if this movie was filmed out of sequence, then she deserves two Oscars.