Short running time feature dramas have an obligation to get down to business, to not squander screen time on clutter. There’s no room for extraneous characters, scenes jammed in that don’t advance the plot, needlessly obscuring relationships when the occasional Big Reveal is mystery enough.
“Alice Fades Away” is a Southern Gothic thriller with abuse and murder, a young wife and mother on the run, building toward a bloody showdown “evil” too vile to be allowed to exist in this world. And it does its damnedest to not let us in on the game.
The debut feature of Ryan Bliss, it’s a little Faulkner/Flannery O’Connor and a lot “Road to Perdition,” a tale set in 1953, with everybody driving a pre-war vintage car, “Southern” Gothic with a finale set on a quasi-communal New England farm and the most amusingly pointless intertitles — needlessly detailing the days of the week (“SUNDAY”) — this side of a student film project.
For a 76 minute thriller, it wastes a helluva lot of time.
Alice (Ashley Shelton) is gushing over her little boy, assuring him that “wishes do come true” because “I wished for you, and you came.”
A drawling old patriarch (William Sadler), seen separately, damns her by reputation as he is interviewing an unseen young man with a lot of questions about her.
“What did he SEE in her?” The old man has no answer.
It turns out he’s talking about his son. As it happens, Alice is on the run. And eventually it develops that the guy asking the questions (Timothy Sekk) has been charged with tracking her down, which is a lot easier than it should be, considering the remote farm of lost or wandering souls where Alice ends up.
In structuring his moody film with flashbacks within flashbacks, by showing so many new (restored) 1940 cars, Bliss adds confusion to his obscurant touches. There are movies that make you come to them. “Alice Fades Away” takes no pains to guide us along that path.
Alice’s son (narrates). Then Alice takes a turn. Then we hear a little more from that patriarch “interview.” A flashback follows, and more confusion enters the picture as we’re never sure how far back this scene will take us, or it it’s in the fictive “present.”
We barely settle into the pastoral idyll of the farm belonging to pseudo-prophet Bishop (Jay Potter), when the combat veteran intones that “that smell” of death has returned to his nostrils, thanks to Alice returning to the farm where she used to live.
The women (Blanche Baker, Emily Eckes) and others on the farm wonder if Alice has brought doom down on them. As flashbacks make clear, the powerful patriarch tasking her pursuer has blood in his eye and revenge in his heart.
Sadler has an affecting unaffected menace. Sekk takes on a little of Jude Law’s psychotic hit man mien from “Perdition.” And Beardmore gets across everything Alice is on the run from in his couple of scenes. Nobody else — and there are many “elses” — makes much of an impression.
I get why the story order was shuffled and why the narrative is rendered murky. The plot is generic, scanty, seriously cut-and-dried.
That doesn’t mean it couldn’t have worked, delivered the gloom followed by the gut punch that so much Southern Gothic traffics in.
Bliss has taken what feels like a simple short film and padded the hell out of it with every narrative and editing trick in the book to make it at least appear to be feature length. We’re not fooled.
MPAA Rating: unrated, bloody violence
Cast: Ashley Shelton, Blanche Baker, Emily Eckes, Tommy Beardmore, Jay Potter, Timothy Sekk and William Sadler
Credits: Scripted and directed by Ryan Bliss. A 1091 release.
Running time: 1:16