Mark Reviews Movies


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: James C. Strouse

Cast: John Cusack, Shélan O'Keefe, Gracie Bednarczyk, Alessandro Nivola

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material, brief strong language and teen smoking)

Running Time: 1:25

Release Date: 12/7/07 (limited); 12/14/07 (wide)

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Review by Mark Dujsik

Problematic yet effective, writer/director James C. Strouse's first film is another in a line of films to study the effects of the current Iraq conflict. It does this with a formulaic story and some manipulative turns, but Grace Is Gone is still true in its core depiction of a man dealing with limitless sorrow, faced with an unimaginable burden and thrust into a role completely foreign to him. The formula is a road movie, and the manipulation comes from a heavy-handed scene of political debate, a few blatant tearjerker moments, and an inciting incident that puts the central character under a microscope for scrutiny.

The honesty, though, rests in the way Strouse lets his hero grow under the forced scenario and how the man holds up under our initial sense of scrutiny. At first, it's hard to sympathize with Stanley Philipps, who is emotionally distant even before entering a state of shock, has a closed mind about anything that disrupts his view of the world, and keeps from his daughters the most important news of their young lives, but Strouse and an uncharacteristic performance by John Cusack ultimately help us to genuinely feel the weight of Stanley's burden.

Stanley (Cusack) is a manager of stock boys at a hardware store. His walk is a stagger as he organizes the troops for a motivational speech before setting off to work. His wife Grace is serving in Iraq. He attends a support group for spouses, where he is the only man, and when the conversation veers to the last day before their spouses shipped off and sex, he frankly tells them, "That's none of anyone's business." It's a private matter. "I was proud to see her go," he says, and leaves it at that. Stanley was in the Army as well; he met Grace while serving. His eyesight is poor, so he was discharged.

He has two daughters, Heidi (Shélan O'Keefe) and Dawn (Gracie Bednarczyk), and he doesn't communicate with them. Heidi tries to watch the news, which Stanley has forbidden, and Dawn keeps her watch set on an alarm synched to her mother's, observing a moment of silence to think of her when it goes off. While the girls are at school one day, two representatives from the Army knock on the door. Stanley can only say, "I was in the shower," after he learns that his wife has been killed in combat.

In his shock, Stanley is barely operating. When his daughters come home, he scolds them for trying to eat the condolence casserole a neighbor left, and when he sits them down to tell them about their mother, he can't. While in the car after dinner and video games, Stanley asks his daughters where they want to go. Dawn suggests a theme park in Florida, and that's the direction they head. We cannot blame Stanley for his hesitancy and denial, but the extreme nature of his action is off-putting.

"They'll never forgive you," his liberal, anti-war brother John (Alessandro Nivola) tells Stanley during an impromptu stop at his mother's house; "You're going to mess them up." While the political debate that unfolds between Stanley and John during that scene is as forced as the road trip formula that outlines the plot, this emotional argument rings true, especially for us who are critical of Stanley's decision, and a moment of simple brotherly love that caps the scene is truly touching. Strouse's script is this kind of balancing act, and in the end, the sincerity underneath the artificial trappings emerges. We can forgive the means because of the ends.

Take the relationship between Stanley and his daughters. This could be played wrongly, either as a device for suspense or for sentiment, but for Strouse, it is the legitimate heart of the family's journey. The familial dynamic is established succinctly at the beginning, and Strouse shows it developing and shifting as the trip continues. He finds Heidi outside of the hotel, smoking with a boy. She can't sleep, she tells her father, and he tells her to wake him up if she can't sleep. The two later bond over a cigarette (He does the old trick of coughing a lot to prevent her from smoking). Dawn follows a random woman around a department store to tell her she just got her ears pierced, and Stanley has to rationalize her mother's decision to go to war.

The irony, of course—and what keeps the relationship involving and its impact sad—is that Stanley is learning to communicate with his daughters by not talking to them about their mother. Cusack plays the role with a specific physicality and a mousy disposition that personifies one with weight of the world on his shoulders. There are two scenes in which he calls the house, to listen to Grace's voice on the answering machine and to talk openly apart from his daughters, that reveal his worries.

Strouse tells the moment of actual revelation without dialogue, calling back to Stanley's assertion that certain things are private matters, and it's the right choice (Clint Eastwood's simple piano and guitar score fill in the emotional blanks without overdoing them). This is a film that could fall apart easily, but Grace Is Gone makes enough right choices in the telling. It's an affecting story of a scenario that is becoming far too common.

Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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