Movie Review: Ordinary People
Director: Robert Redford
Reviewed: 14 July 2013
Sometimes a movie can just burrow into your brain and live there for days. Its character haunt and are not so easily dismissed or labeled. Its story bothers you on multiple levels. Its ending raises even more questions. Robert Redford's 1980 film "Ordinary People" is such a film. I think that "Ordinary People" resonates so strongly because it is about one family enduring remarkable pain and change. A father and mother's disintegrating relationship. A grieving brother left alone due to a boating accident that took his sibling. A trembling sense of fragility when all three family members are in the room together, uncertain how to deal with each other. "Ordinary People" is mostly concerned with the family talking, fighting, and watching each other. I feel that if the film were made today (or by a less capable director), it could have easily devolved into histrionics with more cutting. Instead, Redford has crafted a film that honors its characters and story by making them painfully honest and raw, with family fights having consequences and the reminder that not everyone heals in the same way and that a family is an imperfect bond at best.
Conrad Jarrett (Timothy Hutton) sings in the Lake Forest High School choir, slinks around campus and his house with a melancholy to his eyes, and agonizes over the boating accident that led to his brother's death. He has recently returned from the hospital after a suicide attempt. Conrad's parents Calvin and Beth (Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore) are an affluent North Shore couple, attend plays together, and discuss the banalities of life and death at the breakfast table. However, Redford establishes a great deal in the family's opening scene. Conrad needs to be summoned to the breakfast table; Beth openly wonders where he is, so Calvin calls for him. Conrad reluctantly steps out from the hallway. Beth presents him with french toast: "It's your favorite," she reminds him. He tells her that he is not hungry, and she moves swiftly to dump the plate's contents in the garbage disposal, much to the chagrin of a pleading Calvin, before disappearing to a tennis appointment. With just the two of them in the scene now, Calvin tries to connect with Conrad about his friends ("We don't see much of the old gang around anymore") but ends up insulting his son who leaves him alone at the table. The final shot of the scene is of Calvin, isolated, calling out "Conrad!" as his son treks out for school. In about two minutes, Redford foregrounds the complex relationship Conrad has with both of his parents (and they have with each other), his reluctance to return to old, familiar patterns, Beth's harshness versus Calvin's gregariousness, the shifting that occurs when three becomes two, as well as the setting of the table, which returns later in the film. Based on his father's recommendation that he see a doctor, Conrad seeks out Dr. Tyrone Berger (Judd Hirsch) because as he puts it, "I would like to feel more in control," and the doctor works with Conrad twice a week after school to uncover the roots of his pain.
The performances are spectacular here. Timothy Hutton is a revelation in this film, and although he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor that year, his performance is never less than a leading one. Hutton embodies Conrad's guilt and anxiety through his tormented eyes, rapid fire (at times) delivery of dialogue, his sitting down and immediately rising, as well as his rehearsing of basic dialogue to himself showing his concern for how others see him. I learned that it was a debut performance which is all the more astonishing. Hirsch is fine as Dr. Berger, bringing a loving and abrasive quality to a minor but crucial role. Sutherland and Moore are unforgettably powerful as the couple, and they carry both individual and group scenes, telegraphing the qualities of their characters that shine through Hutton's performance. Their painful fight scene on the golf course never ends, and Redford holds the moving focus of the camera on them as they move and get increasingly more hurtful. The final scene at the table between them has a heartbreaking air of quiet despondence and is a tribute to these fine actors being able to carry such a scene.
Redford's directorial choices remain strong throughout the film. A jump cut in the middle of Conrad's ride to school foregrounds his obsession with the death of his brother without saying a word. The backdrop of the seasons changing is done with a light touch, as is the growing romance between Conrad and Jeannine (Elizabeth McGovern). The doctor scenes appear sporadically, breaking the flow of the family up, while providing an anchor for Conrad to open up about his impressions of his life. Redford lightly layers music throughout the film, trusting the actors with lengthy dialogue scenes that play out in entirety. A scene at a Lake Forest social event is masterfully edited by Jeff Kanew to expose the shallowness of the friendships and this world. The light work on the difference between the siblings never overtakes the film, but it is always there: Conrad's impression that his mother loved his brother Buck more than him. Overall, the impression that I have of Redford's work on this film is one of great control and restraint. He has a strong story and tells it well.
"Ordinary People" seems to me to be the logical antecedent of "American Beauty" and "The Ice Storm" but with a deeper focus on the survival of the family, not a violent third act. Its doctor-patient scenes have clearly influenced a film like "Good Will Hunting." Redford has crafted a powerful film that lingers in the mind and defies easy explanations.
How rare is it that we see grief openly depicted in an American film today? Messy grief, uncomfortable grief that spills over into a person's relationships with everyone around them?
How rare is it to see a marriage depicted with both sensitivity and rawness, so that when a partner tells the other, "I don't know if I love you anymore" it has the quiet power of a neutron bomb exploding?
How rare is it to see a film where the antagonist is not so clearly defined?
In "Ordinary People," both Calvin and Beth are flawed human beings. Calvin collapses on a run, replaying an argument in his head. Beth loses herself in her thoughts at a department store, staring out as vacantly as the mannequin shown in the background. Conrad grabs the hand of the cute girl in choir who is reaching out to him, offering him a sliver of hope, another life, a way to start over. "Do you want to come in for breakfast?" she asks him in a closing scene. In contrast to his earlier refusal to eat his favorite breakfast prepared by his mother, Conrad agrees and enters Jeannine's home to sit at her table, and that mere action is a powerful evocation of trust and hope.