*NOTE: This review was originally part of our 2022 Sundance Film Festival coverage. Alice opens in theaters on March 18th.*
Long after slavery was abolished, Black people remained in a near-permanent state of servitude because of the laws, and culture, stacked against them. But in more tangible ways, there were some who never learned of their freedom and remained stuck and enslaved for years after, completely unaware of what was happening in the world around them. Alice, the ballsy but misjudged revenge thriller from Krystin Ver Linden, is like one part Antebellum, one part Proud Mary, one part Django Unchained. The combination sounds lethally good, like a Tarantino wet dream of a project, but with woeful, half-hearted execution it’s a lot of wasted potential.
In the opening scene, we meet the titular Alice (Keke Palmer), a slave on a Georgia plantation. She’s marrying her love, Joseph (Gaius Charles), and the vows say it all: “til distance do they part.” For there can be no certainty of a life well spent together, not on the land owned by the cruel Paul Bennet (Johnny Lee Miller), who forces his property to listen to Bible readings, while brutally dominating them later. The choice of score, a jazzy, bluesy sound, lends an anachronistic tone. Something is not quite right here. Sure, we’ve seen these types of slavery scenes before, even the grueling pace of it feels familiar. But something is off. Alice can sense it. She hears stories of a man, Joseph’s grandfather, who encountered a black man who fell from the sky and could control fire from his hands. Other weirdness abounds. Paul’s son Daniel returns seemingly from somewhere far away, carrying an out-of-place object. Paul’s mother, suffering from some form of dementia (or is she?) claims to have danced in a place called Chicago.
It’s a long slog, but eventually, Linden’s script gets us to a point when Alice escapes the plantation, only to discover that, in a Shyamalan-esque swerve, she’s actually in the year 1973. This isn’t exactly a tightly-held secret, but I sure wished it was. I also wished that Linden had done more to set up this would-be-great twist by investing more in Alice and her servitude. But this underselling of the narrative and its characters is a recurring theme. Alice’s shock upon discovering a freeway (a what??) and nearly being run over by a truck (again, a what??) isn’t pulled off successfully. She accepts everything happening to her too easily, learns how to manipulate these modern monstrosities without much of a care.
When she encounters Frank (Common), a trucker with a kind heart (played by Common with little more than just that one trait), Alice hits the jackpot. While he’s stunned by total unawareness of who she is and where she’s at, he assumes it’s amnesia. After a trip to the hospital goes haywire, he takes her home and within hours she’s read up on the entire history of the Civil Rights movement (the TV only seems to show Angela Davis, Pam Grier, Malcolm X, and Sanford & Son), done her hair into an afro, watched Grier kick ass in Coffy, and decided to get violent payback on her captors. While details about Frank’s own revolutionary past also come to light, he remains a bland enigma, much like Alice herself. She’s transformed into this emblematic spirit of Black vengeance but we have a hard time caring because there are so many shortcuts taken.
I’m as big a fan of revenge movies, especially of the variety that finds Black people striking back at their oppressors. It is the meat of any good Blaxploitation movie. But Alice, which wants to hold itself as among the best of the genre, doesn’t deserve to be there. Yes, Keke Palmer looks “cool”, exacting vengeance in a style that would make Cleopatra Jones proud, but none of it feels earned. Alice was a great idea and probably some really slick storyboards of Palmer in action, but it offers up nothing more.