Grace is Gone
War movies have been around since the very beginning of motions pictures as a medium for entertainment. In fact the very first film to win the much lauded Best Picture Oscar was a war film ‘Wings’ in 1929. Usually these movies concentrate on the soldiers; their bravery, self sacrifice and dedication to their country. Since the Viet Nam war the topics shifted to laying bare the horrors and loss that war brings and how an unpopular war is perceived back home. "Grace is Gone’ is a completely different type of war movie. There are no battles, no guns and no explosions. It is about a middle class man with two daughters who just lost his wife in Iraq. This is a film about the aspect of war too often overlooked; they devastating effect on the families left behind to morn. This is not a novel topic in movies but this film takes the subject and presents it in a completely human and emotional fashion. This is not a perfect film. It stumbles into the melodramatic several times. What it does do is provide the stage for one of the greatest performances that the leading man, John Cusack, has ever given. His presentation of this man in the most intense emotional pain possible is so riveting that you can just about overlook everything else. Ultimately the film works not only for his performance but is aided by his young co-star, Shélan O'Keefe, as his older daughter. She is phenomenal and goes a long way to carrying the movie on her slight shoulders.
This film is the second screenplay by James C. Strouse. His first, ‘Lonesome Jim’ started Casey Affleck, was about a 27 year old man who, confused by life, moves back in with his parents. This gave Strouse the background in depicting the fragility of human emotions. Here he focuses on the impact of coming to grips with loss. The main character, Stanley Philipps, neverf got a chance to say goodbye to his beloved wife. She died in a far away desert fighting for her country. One plot point that had to be addressed is why she was over there instead of Stanley. Strouse handles this well with some exposition. He tried to get in the army by memorizing the eye chart to cover up his poor sight. When this was discovered he was released from the service. Stanley was a man fully in favor of the war and was willing to go there to fight for his country. Now his only expression of military life is how he runs his department in a big box hardware store in Minnesota. Meanwhile his wife is in Iraq and he has to care for their two daughters, 12 year old Heidi (O'Keefe) and 8 year old Dawn (Gracie Bednarczyk). One day two men come to the door, they are from the army there to inform Stanley his wife died in Iraq. He is naturally devastated and unable to break the news to his daughters. Instead he tells them they are going an on impromptu vacation in Enchanted Gardens in Florida. My wife’s father was a fire fighter. I remember he telling me about the fear her mother had of two men, usually an officer and a chaplain, coming to the door while her father was at work. Just seeing those men at the door froze Stanley; he knew the purpose of their visit before they could say a word. They ask to come in to talk but Stanley refuses; hoping that if he doesn’t let them in then what they have to say didn’t happen. This sets up the denial that is the primary motivation for Stanley. He goes on the road trip only particularly to distract his daughters from what they have to eventually hear. As with most road trip flicks the importance is not the destination but the journey. Stanley is not taking his daughters on one last happy trip; he is fleeing from unimaginable pain. With the exception of one small detour to Stanley’s liberal brother, John (Alessandro Nivola), the story stays far away from the politics and controversy surrounding this war. He spouts his anti-war slogans and sentiments unaware of the true effect it has on Stanley. This is not a story about such things; it is about the internal war that the mourners are forced to fight.
Although he had a previous script on the screen this is the freshman opus for Strouse as a director. For such a difficult topic to tackle he does a very good job of telling his story. His style comes across as a man not trying to impress or show off. He just sets up the scenes and trust that his cast will do the rest. Apparently he fell into the role of director when Rob Reiner had to step down. This seems to show in the way Strouse handles the film, not for ego but to get his story on the screen. He doesn’t even depend on the dialogue he wrote to tell the story. This is an internal journey for Stanley and Strouse lets the audience get to know the character more through actions than words. There is pathos to this film that comes across quietly but distinctively. He doesn’t try to hit the audience over the head with his direction; instead he lets the story unfold while he points the camera at the talented cast. Usually the musical score of a film is not discussed. Here it is so integral to the picture that is warrants a mention. The music was composed by none other than Clint Eastward. With all his well deserved fame as an actor and director most people forget he is also a musician of great merit. His music here is haunting, underscoring the emotional impact of the film but never pushing it or getting in the way. Apparently Eastward was so moved by the initial screening of the film that he offered to write the score.
This is a film that truly showcases the talents of John Cusack. He has played every sort of role imaginable from a hit man to a shy, lowly clerk with equal talent. Here he gets a chance to show how he is able to let a character grow and develop. At first he plays Stanley as a martinet at work. He swaggers around the floor of the store treating his employees as soldiers in his own personal army. He wasn’t able to join the real army so this was the next best thing. When he receives the news about Grace Cusack takes Stanley in a different direction. He becomes meek almost timid. He is afraid that if he tells his daughters about their mother the reality and finality of the situation would overwhelm him. He knows the road trip is only a postponement and Cusack plays it as if Stanley is doing it for the sake of his daughters. In fact Cusack lets the audience see that it is more for Stanley; one last moment of innocence before the news is a fact in his mind. Cusack also plays well off his young co-stars especially Shélan O'Keefe. This is her first movie but considering how she performs here Abigail Breslin certainly has some competition on the horizon. She portrays Heidi as a girl becoming a teenager facing not only those changes but a drastic alteration in the family structure. She more than suspects the truth, unlike her younger sister. She is also growing up too fast for dad. In one scene he catches her having a smoke with a boy. He doesn’t want to see his daughter as a youg woman and finally tries to bond with her over a cigarette. As a basically good parent he does his best not to actually let her smoke it. Together they form the heart of this movie.
The film is released to DVD by The Weinstein Company and Genius Pictures. As always they bring little independent gems to a broader audience then would normally be available to them. There are a few extras provided here; ‘A Conversation with Grace’, ‘Inspiration for Grace is Gone’ and a look at TAPS, the tragedy assistance program. This is the kind of film that will touch the audience and needs to be seen.