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Grace is Gone uses up all its surprises in its first ten minutes, or perhaps as soon as one reads the title. John Cusack's production wants very much to be a strong anti-war film but instead chooses a sentimenal path that leads exactly nowhere. Watching the film is like waiting for the other shoe to drop. We know exactly what will happen when it falls. Despite reasonable direction and some wonderful new actors, the drama remains stubbornly inert.
A few years past his boyish twenty-something looks, John Cusack cuts himself a good slice of acting work and performs admirably. Even better are newcomers Shélan O'Keefe and Gracie Bednarczyk as Cusack's young daughters. They're worth the price of admission.
Grace is Gone plays like a movie that wanted to make a fierce anti-war statement, but pulled back at the last minute. We see Stanley Philipps enforcing a TV news blackout, so as not to hear disturbing reports of the escalating violence in Bagdad. We hear him defend the war effort against his dissenting brother John (Alessandro Nivola). The movie even starts with a moment that will seem familiar to anybody who remembers the Vietnam era. Stanley forces himself to hold down his sales job, and runs his employees through the daily ritual of reciting the letters spelling "Home Store" as if leading a cheer at a football game. It sounds very much like Country Joe McDonald chant-spelling an obscenity in his anti-war song "I Feel Like I'm A-Fixin' to Die Rag", but Stanley is anything but anti-war.
Young Dawn can distract herself from thoughts of danger to her mother but the older Heidi is clearly disturbed. She sneaks looks at the cable news channels and wakes up in the middle of the night to wander. When dad takes them on his pitiful attempt to escape reality, Heidi knows something's wrong. But she doesn't want to face it any more than her father does.
Director James C. Strouse's screenplay invents scenes to flesh out this unhappy tale. While waiting for Stanley to break down and tell his girls the bad news, we see him dealing with a support group of people with spouses serving in Iraq. Stanley's the only male, and he doesn't feel comfortable hearing the ladies talk about phone sex with their men. How did he spend the last night with Grace: "It was nice ... we watched Leno."
When the trio goes on the road, the movie pretty much disintegrates into its component parts. Montages depict their progress across a swath of green America, each town looking just like the last. Dad drives their car into a plowed field and drives in crazy circles like he did when he was a kid. Heidi looks at him like his flipped his lid, and asks him if he's lost his job. We're more aware of the fact that both girls are crawling freely about the car -- nobody is wearing seat belts. This isn't meant to be a snide joke, but I'll bet that statistics will pove that America's soldiers are more likely to come to bodily harm on our highways than on our battlefields. I guess, as a parent, that I want to see Stanley and his beautiful children buckled up.
A couple of segments involving the daughters shine like gold. Faced with having to make decisions as both a father and a mother, Stanley lets the girls get their ears pierced, years before Grace's planned okay date. Stanley takes them to a department store where both go through the ritual, eager to become "young women" and even eager to submit to the pain. Little Dawn is adorable when she prances down another store aisle and announces to a stranger that she's just gotten her piercings. She's disappointed to find out that the experience hasn't transformed her, at least not in the eyes of others. But is her anxiety really an awareness of the bad news that's coming?
Heidi senses the tension more directly. She sneaks out at night during a motel stay to have a smoke with a kid she saw by the pool (Zachary Gray). Shélan O'Keefe gives a remarkably convincing performance, that breaks our hearts in ways unrelated to the film's obvious central issue. Little Gracie Bednarczyck is also "real" and unaffected, coming off as a more believable child than most. 1
Grace is Gone wraps up without a single revelation to communicate about its central subject. Grace was a volunteer soldier and loved her profession so we don't necessarily feel that the intention was to be anti-war, only to raise sensitivity for the losses to military families. Last year's In the Valley of Elah is for the most part even-handed with its condemnation of the war, and is much more coherent. Grace is Gone is highly recommended for its fine acting, by John Cusack and his two young co-stars. 2
Marisa Tomei and Mary Kay Place make very brief appearances. Ms. Tomei is only seen in longshot by a pool.
Genius & Weinstein's DVD of Grace is Gone looks fine in a handsome enhanced transfer. The spare music track is by Clint Eastwood.
The show is accompanied by three extras. A Conversation on Grace is simply the director talking to us about his movie. He doesn't hint at any further complexities in its intentions. Inspiration for Grace is Gone spends some time on the real man behind the story idea. Both it and TAPS are introduced by men in uniform ; TAPS is a somewhat self-congratulatory piece about an organization called the Tragedy Assistance Program, which helps spouses and families deal with emotional problems of fallen soldiers. Considering how much we read about the shoddy treatment afforded military families and survivors, the short really feels like a PR band-aid over an ugly problem.
The disc begins with several film and home video previews that took forever to navigate past. This reviewer hit the advance chapter and menu buttons, only to be re-directed in circles.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Grace is Gone rates:
1. I guess I'm thinking of the talented Dakota Fanning from Spielberg's War of the Worlds, who's a polished actress but by comparison with Bednarczyck seems far too sophisticated. Then again, being a genre film, WOTW is ratcheted to a completely different dramatic pitch.
2. John Cusak is now taking heat for another movie that wears its outrage for the Iraq war on its sleeve. War Inc. is collecting some pretty nasty letters to newspapers for depicting the war as a huge outsourcing scam, corruption that must continue to keep America's war industries humming.
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