Savage Grace / Nathaniel Rogers
Film Reviews | June 5, 2008 | Comments ()
They say that the only sure things in life are death and taxes. But when it comes to the movies there are several sure things. Among them: If a gun is shown in the first act, it has to go off on in the third; the villain who just collapsed is not quite dead yet; those beautiful co-stars that fall in hate at first sight will fall into each other’s arms passionately by the time the credits roll; and if Julianne Moore is the star of the movie, the kids are not all right. If Julianne Moore is the star of the movie, her kids will end up abandoned (The Hours, Boogie Nights), brain-damaged (The Shipping News), imaginary, missing or possibly dead (A Map of the World, The Forgotten, Children of Men, The Hours, World Traveler and Freedomland). Moviegoers first noticed her as the sassy best friend in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992), but who knew that endangered or damaged children would become such an inescapable motif in her career?
You’re forgiven, then, for feeling queasy during Savage Grace’s otherwise innocent-looking opener, in which the great actress is shown cradling her infant son and cooing at him gently. It would seem sweet and hopeful were it not for the familiar bad-mother face doing the cooing. I’d tell the child to run quickly away, but this smothered and wriggly thing can’t even crawl yet. He’s surely doomed spiritually even if he’s going to survive the movie physically. That’s him in voiceover as an adult telling us about his parents, the Baekalands.
Savage Grace is a shocking true crime story based on the book of the same name by Natalie Robins and Steven M. L. Aronson. The parents are wealthy chilly millionaire Brooks Baekaland (the reliably excellent Stephen Dillane) and his passionate upwardly mobile wife, Barbara (Moore). The infant is Tony, their only child. Barbara’s coddling and cooing will continue all throughout Tony’s youth. Talented child actor Barney Clark, last seen as Roman Polanski’s Oliver Twist, carries the role in the movie’s first third as the precocious and intelligent Tony, who is shaped by his over-sharing and lonely mother. She treats him as not just her baby but as a troubling combination of cherished pet, best friend, favorite accessory, and co-conspirator (Tony, already multilingual and at ease with wealth, is trotted out whenever possible to impress society friends). In one telling scene, filmed perversely as a genteel walk in the park, Barbara asks Tony if he’ll still love her when her tits are sagging. Yikes! Barbara sees little Tony as a proxy husband, too. Brooks isn’t exactly holding up his end of the marriage. Not that Barbara is either. Both spouses dally with other lovers, sometimes for kicks sometimes to hurt one another. Love is a battlefield in the Baekeland household.
When Tony comes of age, all that precocity and pampering curdles into surly entitlement, and the exceedingly well-cast Eddie Redmayne takes over the role. He’s entirely believable as Barbara’s son and not just for the matching freckles. A curious, fresh screen presence, Redmayne is what the French might call jolie-laide; that is, beautiful/ugly, depending on your point of view, or maybe the angle, or maybe his temperament at any given moment. That might generally describe Moore’s portrait of Barbara as well: exceedingly beautiful but full-on ugly, or at least diseased beneath her fetching surfaces. Barbara and Brooks became more hateful to one another as the movie progresses, and Tony lashes out, too. At one point the parents trot out a sexual offering of sorts, the young and beautiful Bianca (Elena Anaya), but their matchmaking backfires in all sorts of ways. Tony prefers the company of men.
Brooks, discomforted by the emotional extremities of both wife and son, runs toward familiar sexual crises (leaving his wife for a younger woman) while Tony and Barbara’s story speeds headlong into less familiar psychosexual thriller territory. The audience is left to wonder just how far Barbara and Tony will take their co-dependent relationship. (Since I’ve seen every last one of Moore’s movies, my guess was “far, very very far.”)
For all the Baekalands’ outré behavior, the movie is peculiarly timid at times. It’s got a dirty mouth and a perverse mind but not an especially brave physicality or challenging presentation. Tom Kalin, making his first feature film in 15 years, was far more inventive in his directorial debut, Swoon (1992), which was based on the Leopold and Loeb murders. The only thing that memorable film seems to share with this one is a vaguely queer spirit and the genre of the true crime story. Kalin seems content to sit back and watch Moore with the rest of us, wide-eyed. Moore’s performance is as full throttle as you might expect given the material and her past work. One scene in an airport threatens to rival her drugstore breakdown in Magnolia even if it doesn’t quite get there. Savage Grace is unfortunately tentative about underscoring Barbara’s distaste for her son’s homosexuality; a clearer message there would have helped explain, though not excuse, her actions in the story. And why, for instance, is the actress never naked? It’s not like she hasn’t paraded it around before, and often at that, on movie screens. In Savage Grace, when the material seems to demand utter abandon, she’s physically quite modest, even covering up in a simple bath sequence. The tentative handling of the sex scenes and of Tony’s own deeper emotional instability (a later obsession with a dog collar from his childhood seems to come from nowhere) also makes the grim and bloody finale feel oddly rushed, perhaps borrowed from another film.
Still and all, it’s great to see Moore back in the saddle of a challenging role. Who can blame Kalin for staring? Whether through bad choices or a scarcity of suitable roles, she’s been wasting her time in some truly dreadful motion pictures since her last great effort, 2002’s Far From Heaven. Pray that Savage Grace is a turning point in her career back to worthwhile material. While you’re on your knees, throw in a prayer for her future screen children as well. They’ll need all the grace the heavens can muster.
Nathaniel Rogers is a freelance writer in New York City. He is older than Penelope Cruz and younger than Nicole Kidman but ought never to be confused with Tom Cruise. He blogs daily at The Film Experience.