Evan Rachel Wood’s performance in Allure is something to behold. She demands our pity, and when she has it, she throws us to the side and does something truly shocking. Then she wheels us back around before starting a cycle in perpetuity.
She moves her character across each scene with a sense of programmed behavior yet appears to lack control over whatever’s about to happen next. It’s emblematic of the film’s larger theme: the self-perpetuating nature of abuse and unhealthy relationships and the inescapability of those repetitive actions that ingrain themselves into abusers and their victims.
Wood plays Laura, a young woman who must live with the childhood trauma she suffered at the hands of her father (Denis O’Hare) – who is also her employer – as she seeks companionship in life, seeming to find it early on.
She’s a housekeeper and is assigned to work for a home in a middle-class neighborhood. One of the residents is a quiet, gifted teenager named Eva (Julia Sarah Stone). After Eva and her mother (Maxim Roy) have one of many heated arguments, the girl runs away to live with Laura. Thrust into the secret of this disappearance and the new proximity they share, they form a tentative bond that blossoms into a budding romance.
But that’s where the troubles begin. As the demons of Laura’s past and the pressures of the harsh consequences that would come if the truth of Eva’s whereabouts were to be revealed take hold, the dynamic between them becomes shaky and possessive. The push-pull effect of trying to build a relationship under these circumstances is another manifestation of the simmering risk. It’s not that mistakes are made, but instead what they signify.
Relatively early on, after Laura deduces that police attention towards Eva’s disappearance has diminished, the two begin going out as a couple. The girl is never recognized, and Laura insists that there be a normality and intimacy to their bond. Yet these are ideas that have been deformed for her from an early age, and there’s never been a point in her life where the errors could be redressed.
Once again, it comes back to the power of Wood’s acting. She can express these immensely complex emotions and troubles with brief pauses and stormy, screaming outbursts with equal power. The fact that Wood also has genuine chemistry with Stone allows us to realize that Laura’s desire for a better world is always frustratingly out of reach and contextualizes the depths to which she falls.
But what’s such a valuable asset for a single component of Allure’s puzzle is also a detriment to the film. The Sanchezes copy this individual fatalism as an overriding structural template, and the movie is that much weaker as a consequence. It takes complicated implications and turns them into repetitive devices. The script treats Laura’s constant, violent mood swings as narrative shorthand and simplifies a character component that serves little productive purpose when minimized.
In the third act, a slowly mounting series of events and stakes is relieved abruptly. Tension gets resolved or dismissed with an uneven hand, culminating in a finale that gives its main characters separate sendoffs that barely acknowledge their throughlines. It seems like a last-ditch attempt at resolution for a script so concerned with carving relationships between characters, it fails to sculpt individuals from them. Because the film is so insistent in Laura as a tragic protagonist, a late shift to developing Eva instead comes off as an acknowledgement of a missed opportunity.
It’s hard to discern what Allure wants to say. Once it introduces its idea of abuse as a vicious cycle, it can only re-manifest that notion in different ways because it lacks the conceptual discipline to craft interlocking story arcs. The Sanchezes light their scenes with an eerie, off-camera glow, and while it’s moody in the moment, it’s also an apt metaphor for the problems extant under capable performances and a script that operates in the present tense but drifts listlessly when connecting the pieces.
We watch these characters go through the wringer, encounter physical and emotional indignities and get tossed around by a harsh world that looks away from obvious issues. What’s actually accomplished here? The film wallows in a misery automatic with its subject matter. It never builds upon it to create a unique identity.