Grace is Gone is a quiet, beautiful, moving piece of work, a simple film that doesn’t ask, plead, or cajole; it just puts it out there and lets you allow it come, to wash over you, to sink into its heartbreak. To say that it’s a film that elicits tears or that it’s a “tearjerker” seems almost dishonest; the tears aren’t jerked or drawn out, they just fall like warm drops of rain dribbling down a window, drops you can’t bring yourself to wipe away because — for a few brief seconds as the credits roll, and before the heavy-breathing guy in front of you knocks over his soda while pulling his fat ass out of his seat — it’s those tears that somehow connect you to the characters onscreen, the people whose gut-wrenching loss, by movie’s end, you feel almost as intensely as they do.
It starts with John Cusack, who produces and stars as Stanley Phillips, a sad-sack sort of man, reserved, on the conservative side, but not particularly vocal about his politics. For those of you who may have grown weary over the decades with seeing Cusack play variations on the same cool demeanor, his performance as Stanley is not only the complete opposite of what you’d expect, but it’s the performance of his career, a restrained one that may truly represent the death of (the venerated) Dobler and the birth of a genuine actor. In Grace, he’s not quite unrecognizable, but he looks like you’ve never seen him: Jowly, stodgy, with huge, unflattering glasses, a $4 haircut, and a wardrobe purchased from the markdown bin at the softer side of Sears. He’s a schlub without an ounce of vanity — a content manager for a home goods store married to Grace (Dana Lynn Gilhooly), a career servicewoman stationed in Iraq. His relationship with his two children, Heidi (Shelan O’Keefe) and Dawn (Gracie Bednarczyk) is neither close nor strained; it’s best described as matter of fact. Clearly, he loves his daughters, but he’s not an affectionate man, nor does he really know how to be the kind of father who can open up, share his feelings, or console.
That problem comes into play when two army men show up on his doorstep while his children are at school and ask if they can come in; Stanley shakes his head disbelievingly and silently accepts the sad news. He has exactly the length of a school day to grieve over his dead wife and compose himself enough to tell his children, but he finds when they come home from school that he can’t muster the courage. Because he’s a Dad. And because he loves his children enormously. And because, more than anything, he doesn’t want to hurt them. He wants to protect them from the pain, pain and hurt — incidentally — that he’s not equipped to deal with himself.
So, he takes them out for ice cream, intending to tell them then, but finds himself putting it off again by going against his own nature and impulsively setting off on a cross-country trip from Minnesota to Enchanted Gardens, a Florida amusement park hundreds of miles away and, more importantly, days away from having to break the solemn news to his children, a revelation that will preclude his own ability to deny. Over the course of that trip, Stanley — who steels away for a few minutes each day to call home and listen to his dead wife’s voice on the answering machine — comes to terms with her death, works through the grief, and learns to be to be the nurturing father his daughters need when he tells them their mother won’t be coming home.
It’s a remarkable film for many reasons, not least of which for writer/director James Strouse’s (who wrote Lonesome Jim) ability to create something so affecting out of a minimalist storyline. Every event on the road trip is infused with the secret Stanley is keeping from his daughters, which takes the seemingly benign and makes it flat-out heartbreaking. Part of that has to do with his engrossingly languid directing style of Strouse, and the other part has to do with the performances, and not just Cusack’s clinic on nuance — the girls who play the daughters are brilliant, cute and smart and warm without being at all precocious.
There’s also a political element to Grace is Gone, too, but it’s not overbearing or preachy. There is no grandstanding, zero sermonizing, little discussion of ideology, and no divisiveness in the film’s message. Grace is Gone manages to deal with the war in a confrontational and deep way, but it does so without being polemical. If you’re a liberal, you’re likely to see it as a movie about the human cost of war, a film that puts a name and a face to the families of those unphotographed coffins. And if you’re conservative, you’ll probably see it as a movie that honors the troops by humanizing their sacrifice. I managed to view it apolitically, as an emotionally effective, exploration of grief and the different ways that people can cope with it. But no matter your politics, or lack thereof, there is no denying the movie’s power; Strouse manages to turn the acceptance of loss into a warm, life-affirming film.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife and son in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
Grace is Gone / Dustin Rowles
Film | December 7, 2007 | Comments ()