Friday, May 30, 2008

"Savage Grace" -- * * *

It's a shame Tom Kalin's "Savage Grace" couldn't have opened in time for Mother's Day, because it depicts what is probably the most depraved mother-son story you could think up (and it's all true!). It's also the rare movie that's cold and frigid in a good way, as it takes a rather insane story and doesn't ever seem to milk it for camp or exploitation. This may in fact be some people's primary issue with the film, complaining that it de-camps source material that is naturally campy, but this was probably the only way to approach this subject matter/story without turning it into a scintillating "Notes on a Scandal"-style soap opera. It still is a soap opera of sorts, but the cold, "classy" presentation almost unwittingly turns it into a more unsettling and ultimately horrifying one. In a season known for light, mindless popcorn movies, this is unconventional summer fare to say the least, but for all of its 85 minutes, I found it incredibly absorbing as I kept waiting for the next bad thing to happen. The icing on the cake is that it's all anchored by a return-to-form by the luminous Julianne Moore playing one of her most batshit roles. I've heard "Savage Grace" referred to as a "cautionary tale," but I don't know if it quite has a message to impart besides, "rich people are.... weird."

Based on the book by Natalie Robins and Steven M. L. Aronson, "Savage Grace" (like the book) is framed with narrations of letters from Tony Baekeland (Eddie Redmayne) to his father, Brooks (Stephen Dillane), heir of the Bakelite plastics fortune. Beginning in post-World War II Manhattan and going well into the '60, the film chiefly documents the goings-ons after Brooks leaves the family for various reasons, thus strengthening the relationship between Tony and possessive mother Barbara (Moore). Impulsive, pretentious and more than a wee bit homophobic, Barbara develops a deep, disturbing bond with the openly gay Tony that reaches its apex during his teenage years. We begin with Tony as a small boy, and Barbara and Brooks married, and with a slow boil, are lead into the true-life story's infamous climax. Yes, I'm being intentionally vague.

While Barbara has nowhere near the depth of "Boogie Nights's" Amber Waves, "Far From Heaven's" Cathy Whitaker, "Safe's" Carol White, or even "The Hours'" Laura Brown and "Magnolia's" Linda Partridge, it still registers as one of the best, most fearless performances of Moore's career. After wasting away in paycheck vehicles like "Laws of Attraction," "Next," and "Freedomland," this qualifies as an unquestionable return to form for the four-time Oscar nominated actress. Though the character does allow Moore to chew some scenery, Barbara always feels like a real human being, if not an entirely three-dimensional one. The performance, as well as the character, is bizarre at times, and while the movie occasionally seems confused about who she is, that's because Barbara is also; whether flaunting her ideal-aristocratic-wife smile, or motherly whispering, "Inside voice!" as her son resists a handjob, you just can't keep your eyes off her. As a full-fledged movie star, this was a bold role for her to take, but Hollywood status aside, it's also a great one, and a reminder that even in a knowingly "big" performance, Moore's one of the best actresses we've got.

The film is paced very carefully, allowing things to slowly build and get worse and worse (in a way that reminded me of "There Will Be Blood"). Unless you know too much about the true life story going in, you don't know exactly where this is all leading, building the atmosphere without heavily foreshadowing things; those going in knowing nothing will have one of the more jolting movie experiences of the year. However, the incremental structure keeps the places we end up from feeling predictable or inevitable, without seeming like they came out of nowhere either. It makes it feel relatively real and allows us to be slowly enveloped, not just wait for the assumed mother-son dicking to happen.

As a film featuring all sorts of deviancy and decadence, sensationalism could have been gone for every step of the way, but Kalin allows the proceedings to be shocking in a quietly haunting, draining way, not resorting to brash melodrama. Both Fernando Velázquez's string-heavy score and the gaps of silence (the kind which say more than the dialogue) in Howard Rodman's script contribute heavily to this and both, honestly, are areas I initially expected to fall under the "too much" category here. Aside from just the content, this is kind of a strange movie, from the reserved approach, the handling of the character perspectives and the tonal escalation signaling foreboding doom. The fact that the latter continues even after the film's supposed climaxes lets us know things can only get worse. While the mother-son *cough* intimacy will be what gets the movie any attention coming its way, I was much more disturbed by little scenes like young Tony applying healer to Barbara's stitches on her wrists from her past suicide attempts, while she eats ice cream naked in the bathtub.

As engaging as "Savage Grace" is, it's exactly the sort of film that will draw a primarily elderly, arty audience and repulse them all with its content. I'm just imagining senior citizen patrons of my hometown's Cinema Arts Center muttering "My goodness!" and exiting the theater. An open mind will be required on both ends of the spectrum, and might make for a moviegoing experience where half of the audience finds it too trashy and debased and the other half finds it too conservative and tasteful. If nothing else, this is a film that's worth seeking out for Moore's stellar performance alone. The Academy isn't likely to go anywhere near this movie, so it's a performance likely to slip under the radar unless you make an effort to find it. You'll probably leave the theater with an awful taste in your mouth, but that's kind of the point. It'll certainly serve as a nice antidote for those sick of bubble-headed, middle-aged women babbling about shoes and bags.

"Savage Grace" opens today at two theaters, the IFC Center and Clearviews' 62nd and Broadway, both in New York, but depending on your cable provider, you can order it On Demand in the 'IFC In Theaters' section.


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