United States. Directed by Jay Lee, 2011. Starring Jade Dornfeld, Tamara Feldman, Eddie Rouse. 94 minutes. 5/10
Twentysomething Alyce (Jade Dornfeld) works a dead-end data entry job for a boss who loathes her. She lives in a run-down apartment, her landlord constantly hounding her for rent. Her associates see her as weird and pathetic, and even her best–more like only–friend, Carroll (Tamara Feldman), thinks she’s kind of odd.
One night, Carroll discovers her boyfriend Vince (James Duval) is cheating on her and responds the only way she knows how: by dumping the bastard, then going on an ecstasy-fueled bender and taking Alyce along for the ride. The two young women end up on the roof of Alyce’s apartment building and tragedy strikes. The drug-addled Alyce playfully pushes Carroll as she dances along the roof’s ledge. Alyce doesn’t mean to hurt her friend; nevertheless, Carroll takes a multi-story tumble and lands on the street below.
Assuming she killed Carroll, Alyce sneaks back to her apartment. When the cops arrive the next day, she lies to them, telling them that Carroll was distraught over her breakup and went to the roof alone. That’s when the cops reveal that Carroll isn’t dead. Although with a shattered jaw, she’s not in much of a position to tell anyone the truth.
The guilt of having nearly killed her best–only–friend sends Alyce, never the most stable of people to begin with, over the edge. She looks up Carroll’s dealer Rex (Eddie Rouse) and tries to buy drugs from him…but since she doesn’t have enough money, he demands an…alternate…form of payment. Her life soon spins into a downward spiral of drug abuse and degrading sex. Her job performance suffers. Her behavior becomes more erratic than it already was.
Something inside Alyce has snapped. She may have been weird before…but now she’s dangerous.
Hey kids! Do you like movies about adorable, eccentric misfits (May)? What about gut-wrenching tales of emotional and physical degradation (Requiem for a Dream)? Or black comedies about psychotic murderers (Sightseers)? Well then, friend, today is your lucky day, because Alyce Kills is all three at once!
But actually–and this probably shouldn’t surprise you–what it really is, is an unfocused mess. It reminds me a lot of Chicago weather: if you don’t like what it’s doing or where it’s going, just wait about ten minutes. By that time you’ll find yourself wondering if you’re watching an entirely different movie.
Now, I’m all for shifts in tone and changes in direction in cinema. Some of my favorite horror movies employ them to great effect. The problem with Alyce Kills is that its shifts and twists aren’t particularly effective. Most horror films with a dark comic bent either juxtapose the two, or start out funny and progress to terrifying. This is hard enough to do as it is. Alyce Kills tries something a bit different: it starts serious, gets dark, and then becomes a comedy in its last half-hour. I guess there’s got to be a way to make that work, although writer/director Jay Lee certainly isn’t successful at it.
One thing that doesn’t help is that it’s hard for the audience to wrap its mind around the title character. One moment we feel bad for her because Rex shot his wad in her mouth even though she specifically told him not to, then she kills one of her friends, then she masturbates while watching Gulf War footage on a cable channel. Sometimes she’s a lovable, sarcastic pixie, sometimes she’s a freak and sometimes she’s just fucking nuts. Real human beings have all sorts of contradictory personality traits, but fictional characters need a bit of work to resolve them. Sometimes Alyce seems like an effigy to perform whatever action Lee thinks is cool or funny or whatever.
Jade Dornfeld’s performance in the role doesn’t make up for the flaws in its conception. That doesn’t mean that her performance is entirely, or even partially, bad: she’s a gifted comic actress, and she makes the best impression in the later, funnier scenes. There’s a sequence involving a microwave oven, a garbage disposal, and a severed human arm that’s priceless, and the film’s final scene is as hilarious as anything in an Edgar Wright movie.
She’s problematic when the story is on the serious side, especially in the first half hour or so. Like any good white liberal boy, I know I should feel bad for Alyce when she agrees to trade sex for drugs. But Dornfeld doesn’t really make the case that Alyce doesn’t have a choice (or feels she doesn’t have a choice, which is pretty much the same thing), and so I get miffed at her when she just doesn’t turn around and walk away.
Lee consistently tells us throughout the movie that Alyce has always been a little weird, but neither he nor Dornfeld actually convince us. We never get the feeling that there’s this wellspring of rage inside her, just waiting to burst out.
And it hurts because the character deserves a lot better than this, and so does the cast–including Dornfeld herself, despite all my criticism of her. I don’t regret watching Alyce Kills–it’s got its entertaining bits and its disturbing bits. They’re just not put together in a sequence that makes much sense.