Thursday, January 19, 2012

Ordinary People

 A little advice about feelings kiddo; don't expect it always to tickle. -- Dr. Tyrone Berger

In honor of the fact that today would have been my Mom's 60th birthday, I'm reviewing Robert Redford's directorial debut Ordinary People, which was one of her favorite films. This striking family drama, winner of 4 Oscars in 1980, centers around the Jarretts, an affluent suburban family living in Northern Illinois. Still reeling from the loss of their oldest son Buck (who drowned after a sailboat carrying him and his brother capsized in a storm on Lake Michigan), the remaining survivors must come to terms with how his death, and the youngest son Conrad's subsequent suicide attempt, has deeply affected and changed them all. The film, and the novel it's based on, deals with the vast gulfs created amidst each family member by recent events and how they succeed, or fail, to bridge the new separations that exist between them. 

Ordinary People's main focus is the youngest son, Conrad (odd that Timothy Hutton won a supporting Oscar for what could well be considered the sole lead role in the film). A month after being released from the mental hospital he was committed to after his suicide attempt, Conrad is still traumatized by the storm and boating accident which took his older brother's life. Memories of that day haunt his every waking moment and when he sleeps, these visions are fodder for his nightmares. Like his older brother, he's on the swim team, but every time Conrad nears the water or hangs out with mutual friends he and his brother shared, he's transported back to that fateful night on the water when he watched his brother let go and sink out of view for the last time. 

Beth Jarrett, the mother, has become a bitter, controlling woman, all while hiding it under a veneer of blissful, suburban perfection. An ideal housewife and socialite, "Everyone loves Beth". What's less clear is if Beth herself can love anyone. Her capacity to love seems to have drowned along with Buck. Conrad, the son who lived, becomes a particular target of her ire. Though she would never admit it to anyone, not even herself, it's clear to the viewer and to Conrad that she wishes it was he who died in that storm. 

The father, Calvin Jarrett, is a well-meaning tax attorney who senses the gulf in his family but not the reason. Desperate to bring everyone back together again, his wife's newfound coldness forces him to examine how the loss has changed him and whether the man he has become can love the woman his wife now is (or perhaps always was). He spend much of the movie caught helplessly between two storms--the frigid winds of his perfectly presented wife who harangues Conrad whenever he puts the simplest step out of place and the furious flurries of anger from Conrad who, when not directing his loathing inward, lashes out at those who try to help him, seeing only his guilt reflected in their well-meaning entreaties. 

Eventually, through sessions with the kind-hearted psychiatrist Dr. Tryone Berger, who provides the movie with its few moments of humor as well as its catharsis, Conrad begins to come to terms with his responsibility, or lack thereof, for his brother's passing. In order to wrestle with such deep-seated depression, one must recognize it for what it is. And as Conrad begins a romantic relationship with a young girl in his school choir, he begins to see the fruits of these sessions, and of his father's tireless support. When describing how he felt on the eve of his suicide attempt to his new girlfriend, he compares it to "falling into a hole and it keeps getting bigger and bigger and you can't get out... all of a sudden, it's inside, and you're the hole and you're trapped." A succinct, accurate depiction of the depression many face, what a terror it must be to feel trapped inside your own head. 

Despite the fact that this is Redford's first stab at directing, it's rare to see a film this accomplished and polished. Considering that the script is laden with the potential for over-wrought drama, only a confident director could pull this off with such ease. His style is staid and conservative, almost to the point of non-existence as he wisely allows this powerful story to unfold with little stylistic interruption.  The only music in this film are a series of variations on Pachelbel's Canon, wisely Redford avoids adding an unnecessarily dramatic score. This film has enough of it's own fire that it needs little embellishment. As it is, it only barely avoids the often unavoidable plague of melodrama that many films of this ilk unadvisedly embrace. 

Redford must also be credited for how well he handled his actors. He proves his intimate knowledge of the story, by restraining the actors from indulging from too many florid, over-the-top "Oscar" moments. This allows the moments of truly overflowing emotions to retain their impact. In these, each of the main cast performs flawlessly. 

The star of the show is newcomer Timothy Hutton, who justly won an Oscar for his performance--even if it was in the wrong category. Conrad Jarrett is the one most profoundly damaged by his brother's death, as he was the only one there to witness it. Much like his mother, who Calvin wisely observes is the parent he is most similar to, he tries to mask his grief, anger and self-loathing. Unlike his mother, he is far less successful doing so. This turns out to be a blessing in disguise, as it forces him to face his feelings in a manner she isn't capable of. In the film's greatest moment of catharsis, Dr. Berger (played with an almost unbelievable saintliness by Judd Hirsch) Hutton weaves his conflicting emotions together with such engrossing and seamless conviction (the relevant section begins at around 2:25, if anyone knows who to embed these things with a specific time stamp I'd be much obliged):

Conrad Jarrett: [Berger is pretending to be Buck, Con's older brother] Bucky, I didn't mean it! Bucky, I didn't meant it! 
Dr. Berger: What? 
Conrad Jarrett: I said put the sail down, but you said keep it starboard, and then we go over! And you say "Hang on, Hang on!", but then you let go! Why'd you let go? 
Dr. Berger: Because I was tired! 
Conrad Jarrett: Oh yeah? Well screw you, you jerk! 
Dr. Berger: [Back in reality] It hurts to be mad at him, doesn't it? 
Conrad Jarrett: God, I loved him. It's not fair. You just do one wrong thing. 
Dr. Berger: And what was the one wrong thing you did? 
Conrad Jarrett: I hung on. I stayed with the boat.  
As this passage shows, often the most difficult part of grief is the confusing anger you feel towards the departed. How can you blame your brother for drowning, or your wife for suffering a coma in a boating accident, or your mother for dying of cancer? It's hardly their faults, yet the anger exists, and until it's dealt with, it simmers in you only further contributing to your senseless guilt. Hutton, though he was just 20 at the time of the movie's release, nails the complex mores of grief with the poise of a far more experienced thespian.

Mary Tyler Moore, as the cool aloof mother, uses the easy charm she perfected on television with The Mary Tyler Moore Show to hide the fathomless depths of her sadness. The gulf between her and her family is the widest of anyone's as she desperately, ruthlessly pursues the normalcy of her life before Buck's accident and Conrad's suicide attempt. She complains often in the film that she just wants things to go back to normal and believes that pretending like nothing has changed is the best way to achieve that. Therefore, when anyone else in the family suggests that she confront the reality of their altered situation, she reacts by clamming up or lashing out against them or accusing them of being weak and manipulated by their own guilt. 

In spite of her own obvious weaknesses, Redford wisely does not villify her... how many mothers are equipped to handle the loss of their favorite son? With an easy smile that rarely touches her cold, frightened eyes, Moore indelibly illustrates a woman helplessly drowning in her own grief who, with her stubbornness, threatens to bring the rest of the family down with her. In a series of scenes that will break your heart, she repeatedly ignores Conrad's attempts to reach out to her, and rejects his silent pleas of forgiveness with blithe criticism. In one moment when it's clear he's about to open up to her, she deflects it by pointing our how messy his closet is and then flees to answer the phone. Also, the brief glimpse we're given of her mother strongly hints where her personal failings may have come from. She is not to be blamed, or hated, but merely pitied. 

Donald Sutherland, one of the most criminally underrated actors of his era, leavens the film's acidity with his compassion. He struggles to understand the rest of his family, which seems to be spiraling out of control around him. Reluctant to believe either Beth's or Conrad's constant accusations against one another, Calvin Jarrett fruitlessly hopes to bring them back together. Like Beth, he is undone at times by the grief he feels for his lost son, often losing himself in his memories of happier times (the only glimpses we get of Buck are through these brief flashbacks, which wisely highlight the profound loss his absence creates). Unlike Beth, and Conrad for that matter, he does not blame his living son, instead choosing to clutch tightly to the family he has left. Sutherland's patient bewilderment fits this unassuming character like a glove.

In the end, though any movie that deals with the effect the loss of a loved one has on a family will inevitably be bleak, this film offers up a measure of hope for some of its characters. Much like The Descendants, which I reviewed yesterday, the characters in Ordinary People must cling together while stuck in their cool, stolid suburban world. They must find within themselves, and within one another, the capacity for forgiveness, because, as Redford deftly reveals, only after one forgives oneself or one's family for their wrongs--be they real or imagined--can one really begin to heal. The only other option, as this movie also cleverly explains, is to flee into the depths of your ignorance, which will allow grief to consume you completely. That, it must be said, sounds like no life worth living. 

1 comment:

  1. Hey Glenn,

    This is one of my favorite films of all time and I'm so happy to read your review. Love your blog.