Saturday, February 04, 2017
Based on the novel by Judith Guest, Ordinary People is the story of a upper-middle class family who copes with the loss of their son while his younger brother deals with survivor’s guilt as he returns home from the hospital. Directed by Robert Redford and screenplay by Alvin Sargent, the film is an exploration of a family dealing with loss as well as a young man wondering about his own role in his family and his relationship with his own parents. Starring Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Timothy Hutton, Elizabeth McGovern, and Judd Hirsch. Ordinary People is a somber yet engaging film from Robert Redford.
The film is the story of a family reeling from the aftermath of the death of a son as well as the suicide attempt of another as they try to move on as if nothing is happening yet the surviving son still copes with survivor’s guilt. It’s a film that explores a family that slowly unravels as they’re forced to see things and reflect on aspects of their life. The film’s screenplay by Alvin Sargent is quite straightforward as it largely takes place during the autumn season in an upper-middle class suburbia near Chicago where its 18-year old son Conrad Jarrett (Timothy Hutton) has just got out of the hospital for a month as he returns to school trying to get back to his normal routine before his brother’s death and suicide attempt. Yet, he’s become withdrawn and unable to do what he’s done in the past while he’s having a harder time trying to express himself emotionally with his mother Beth (Mary Tyler Moore). For his father Calvin (Donald Sutherland), he is concerned for Conrad’s well-being as well as try to keep everything calm.
Conrad would turn to a psychiatrist in Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch) for answers but finds himself not only dealing with memories of the boating accident that killed his brother Buck (Scott Doebler). He also copes with the fact that he’s still alive which hasn’t made him deal with things as easy as he wants to be. The script is really noted for its development as Conrad is just someone that is trying to make sense of everything he’s feeling as he would quit the swim team and befriend a young classmate in Jeannine (Elizabeth McGovern) who would give him a bit of hope. Yet, it’s at home where things become difficult where his mother remains cold and distant as she’s trying to maintain some sense of normalcy around family and friends. For Calvin, he tries to understand what his son is feeling and why his wife has been reacting at things where he eventually comes to realize that something is wrong as he becomes aware that not everything is alright. Even as Beth would snap him for talking about Conrad and their situation to family and friends as it show cracks starting to emerge.
Robert Redford’s direction is actually quite simple in terms of the compositions he creates as he doesn’t really go for any kind of flashy visuals in favor of just doing something that is direct and to the point. Shot on location in Lake Forest, Illinois and parts of Chicago, the film does play into the world of suburbia where everything looks nice and everyone is perfect which is really a façade. There are some wide shots that Redford uses yet his approach to medium shots and close-up add a lot to the drama from the sessions that Conrad would have with Dr. Berger or the moments involving the family. There are also flashbacks that would appear every now and then such as the boating accident but also time of the family before Buck’s death and Conrad’s suicide attempt. Those are the few moments in the film where Redford would show some aspect of style as it has a mixture of fantasy but also terror as it relates to the tragedy the Jarrett family is dealing with. Some of these flashbacks play into happier times where both Conrad and Calvin reflect on as if it feels like a fantasy.
Redford also create moments that play into the family unit cracking with such subtlety such as a dinner party that Calvin and Beth attend where the former is talking with someone who asked about Conrad where Calvin was being honest but gracious as Beth overhears him. She would later scold him for talking about something that is private and again late in the film during a holiday vacation with Beth’s brother and wife as it play into many things Calvin starts to see. Even as he would eventually go to Dr. Berger for one session as it opens up into things he never thought about or had been in his mind for so long. The third act isn’t just about Conrad dealing with the pain over the loss of his brother but also Calvin having a revelation about his wife and what had been lost since the death of their eldest son. Overall, Redford crafts a somber yet evocative film about a family coming to terms with loss but also the realization that nothing can be the same ever again.
Cinematographer John Bailey does excellent work with the film‘s cinematography with emphasis on low-key lights and textures for some of the daytime exterior and interior scenes with the usage of lights for the scenes at night including a nighttime session Conrad has with Dr. Berger. Editor Jeff Kanew does brilliant work with the editing as it feature some jump-cuts and stylish flashback montages to play into the drama. Art directors J. Michael Riva and Brook Simons, with set decorators William B. Fosser and Jerry Wunderlich, do fantastic work with the look of the Jarrett home as well as the pool in Conrad‘s high school and Dr. Berger‘s office with its more quaint appliances.
Costume designer Bernie Pollack does nice work with the costumes as it is largely straightforward in terms of the casual look of Conrad as well as the more clean-cut and refined look of Calvin and Beth. Sound editor Kay Rose is terrific for the scenes involving swim meets and parties but also in the quieter moments at home as it play into the tension at home. The film’s music by Marvin Hamlisch is amazing as it is very a low-key orchestral score with some piano that play into the drama as the soundtrack also include a few classical pieces with Johann Pachelbel’s Canon and Gigue in D as the opening and closing music piece of the film.
The casting by Penny Perry is great as it feature some notable small roles from Meg Mundy and Richard Whiting as Conrad’s grandparents, Scott Doebler as Conrad’s late older brother Buck, James B. Sikking as Calvin’s business colleague/friend Ray, Adam Baldwin as a teammate of Conrad in Kevin Stillman whom Conrad doesn’t really like, Fredric Lehne as Conrad’s best friend Joe who is trying to talk to him as he also misses Buck, and M. Emmet Walsh as Conrad’s swim coach Salan as someone who is wondering where Conrad’s head is at for the meets. Dinah Manoff is wonderful as Karen as someone Conrad met at the hospital as they meet to talk about their issues where she claims that she is doing great. Elizabeth McGovern is fantastic as Jeannine as a schoolmate of Conrad who befriends him as she provides some hope and kindness to Conrad. Judd Hirsch is excellent as Dr. Berger as a psychiatrist who is a very sympathetic figure that is trying to understand Conrad as well as not bullshit him about the ways of the world and things that Conrad needs to figure out.
Timothy Hutton is phenomenal as Conrad Jarrett as a young man dealing with survivor’s guilt and a suicide attempt as he tries to return to the world yet he is anguished and lost where Hutton show that sense of despair and loneliness as it is truly a breakthrough performance for the actor in his debut film role. Donald Sutherland is remarkable as Calvin Jarrett as a man trying to understand his son’s withdrawn behavior as well as dealing with the fact that he has some issues to face including his wife’s refusal to talk about some serious issues. Finally, there’s Mary Tyler Moore in a radiant performance as Beth Jarrett as a woman who is either in denial or refusing to face the things around her family in an attempt to try and move on as if nothing had happened as it’s a very eerie performance from Moore who plays a character that is very unlikable but also just as fragile as someone that isn’t ready to face the truth about herself.
Ordinary People is an incredible film from Robert Redford. Featuring a great cast and an entrancing portrait on grief, loss, and denial, it’s a film that explores a family dealing with life after loss and how those can’t face the truth about themselves and what was lost. In the end, Ordinary People is a tremendous film from Robert Redford.
Robert Redford Films: (The Milagro Beanfield War) - (A River Runs Through It) - (Quiz Show) - The Horse Whisperer - (The Legend of Bagger Vance) - (Lions for Lambs) - (The Conspirator) - (The Company You Keep)
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