Review by Beth Gilligan
Posted on 05 February 2007
Source 35mm print
Features: The 2007 Sundance Film Festival
Brimming with good intentions, Grace is Gone is a difficult film to dislike. It may be structured to maximize the manipulation of audience emotions (there wasn’t a dry eye in the house at the jam-packed screening I attended), but it also addresses a subject matter so thoroughly overlooked by the mainstream news media that to criticize it seems almost like nitpicking. The Weinstein brothers, who acquired it at the festival, are already rumored to be cooking up an Oscar campaign for John Cusack, and with the Sundance Audience Award and Screenwriting Prize under its belt, the movie appears to be on an unstoppable path to awards season glory (and that’s next year’s awards season I’m referring to).
The story of Stanley, a man who takes his two young daughters on an impromptu road trip upon hearing of his wife’s death during a combat mission in Iraq, the film is undeniably timely, even if its plot structure is somewhat contrived. Cusack and writer-director James Strouse have repeatedly said they didn’t intend for the movie to be used as a piece of political agitprop, but rather intended it as a universal portrait of the suffering caused by war. To drive this point home, they bend over backwards to evoke The Average American, but this careful rendering often feels too studied.
In keeping with this bid to remain fair and balanced, Stanley’s brother is downright angry about the war, while his eldest daughter Heidi expresses thoughtful skepticism about the Bush administration’s motives and Stanley himself remains largely resolute in his belief that his wife’s enlistment was a noble decision. Should anyone doubt that this spectrum of opinion isn’t representative of the U.S. population, Strouse takes great pains to place his cast in a Disney-like theme park, Dairy Queen-like restaurant, Days Inn-like hotel, Wal-Mart-like chain store, and a series of other settings seemingly intended to evoke middle America. For his part, Cusack sheds every last vestige of his usual quirky onscreen persona in favor of a hesitant gait and reticent manner seemingly befitting a man in his position.
The film’s strength – and what will most likely be its salvation among critics and audiences – is its willingness to tackle a subject that has been virtually ignored by both the media and the current administration: the toll the Iraq War has taken on individual families. Given the absence of flag-covered coffins on TV (which is to say nothing of the mention of Iraqi casualties), it is difficult not to applaud Strouse for his determination to counter this sanitized version of the effects of war. While Grace is Gone may be melodramatic in its execution, it is bold in its direct confrontation of the impact war has on the home front.