← Back to Reviews

A Woman Under the Influence

The late John Cassavetes and his wife, Gena Rowlands were able to carve an impressive niche into cinema history while Cassavetes was still alive, but the zenith of their work together had to be the 1974 film A Woman Under the Influence an explosive and blistering look at mental illness from a perspective that has been rarely explored onscreen.

Most films dealing with characters with mental issues take place after the diagnosis has been made and the character is either in therapy or has been committed. This film takes a different tack as we meet Mabel, a suburban housewife and mother of 3 played by Rowlands, whose mental issues initially appear to be something as simple as bipolar personality, something that can be dealt with via medication, but it is clear as we see Mabel interact in various social situations, that there are serious mental issues going on here, but for some reason, no one really wants to talk about it. Her husband Nick (Peter Falk) knows there is something wrong, but is still harboring a great deal of denial about it, despite the fact that he absolutely blows up at anyone else even hinting at the fact that there is something wrong with Mabel. There are moments where we see Nick punishing Mabel for behavior she doesn't know how to control for the sake of his own denial and it is heartbreaking to watch. It is also heartbreaking that Mabel is unsure of what's going on but gauges everything through her children....as long as her children love her, she doesn't care what anyone else says.

This film is such a troubling watch because we want Mabel to get help and we see the people in her orbit walking on eggshells around her instead of telling her what she needs to hear. It is almost 2/3 of the way into the film before Mabel is actually committed and even sadder is the fact that when she's released, she really doesn't seem any better.

Gena Rowlands delivers the most powerful performance of her career as Mabel, a master class in acting that won her a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination. Rowlands is gutsy and unhinged and absolutely riveting in a role that would be any actress' dream. Mabel is warm and sad and frightening. The scenes where she tries to fight Nick's decision to commit her and her eyes literally roll in the back of her head and the scene where she's in the street screaming at strangers in an effort to find out what time it is because she has to meet her kids' school bus are absolutely devastating. The school bus scene is especially powerful because Mabel appears so mentally shredded you're convinced that she isn't even in the right place to meet the bus and you're surprised when the bus actually shows up. Rowlands so completely commands the screen with this performance that during the 30-45 minutes when her character is not screen (when Mabel has been committed), the film comes to a screeching halt.

Peter Falk is explosive in an almost Brando-esque turn as Nick, a husband who is at a loss how to help the woman he loves more than life. Falk has rarely been so powerful onscreen and mention should also be made of the director's mother, Katherine Cassavetes, who plays Nick's mother.

A once in a lifetime cinematic experience thanks to evocative, in-your-face direction, a pair of devastating lead performances, and a story that leaves you with hope and wonder about what happens after the credits roll. 8.5/10