Waking the Dead Movie Review

Keith Gordon is one of the best filmmakers we have working today, and he's been quietly building a strong body of work which merits attention. His cult classic anti-war film, A Midnight Clear and his tour de force adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night were two of the 15 or 20 best American films to come out in the 1990s. Gordon is particularly good at visualizing internal landscapes, particularly slow collapses into paralyzing madness and terrible guilt.

It's difficult to say whether or not Waking the Dead is his best film, since it's one of those movies which seeps into you as you view it, then stays with you in the days that follow. It's certainly his most challenging in terms of tone, structure, and theme, deliberately convoluted and fragmented, moving back and forth between two different, contrasting eras (the idealistic '70s and the aggressively opportunistic '80s) and the evolution of its deeply troubled central character, Fielding Pierce (Billy Crudup).

Fielding has idealistic hopes in his youth to do some small good in the world within a liberal political system, but for much of the film he is caught between his personal ambition for success and those hopeful dreams of social change. He comes from a struggling blue-collar family and has worked enormously hard to get to where he is, but where is that place, and what is it he really wanted in the first place?

Gordon's theme is idealism, and that is closely connected with Fielding's spiritual love and connection with Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connelly,) a young hippie and political activist who works with Fielding's deadbeat brother (raspy Paul Hipp). The opening scenes in 1972 play out as colorful and a little goofy, and Gordon draws out a few silly moments between Fielding and his brother to the point where an audience may become a little restless, but stick with the film.

It's slow, methodical, economical -- it requires some patience because it's a movie with allows itself to breathe, easing slowly into a romantic story on par with Casablanca, a fine companion piece which was also more a story about struggles with idealism than true love. If you ask me, that makes the romance in these films all the more powerful and stirring.

This romance plays out against the backdrop of political change and social activism. They care for each other because they both want to make those changes to better society, but their approaches are wildly different. Fielding wants to change from the inside, administratively, first as a district attorney and, ultimately, as the president. Sarah moves in different circles, with protestors and radicals. The film could have easily become bogged down in moral postulating, but it keeps its message clear and direct.

Gordon is also particularly good at handling the sensual nature of their relationship, which is playful and sweet. When they're debating a hot issue, and Fielding is starting to go off on her, she starts kissing his stomach. "Hey, what are you doing? Stop that. I'm having a moment here." he says, laughing. "I had a point I was trying to make..."

The opening scene in the film clearly establishes the event which will haunt Fielding through the entire film, as he witnesses a car accident on television and learns that Sarah is dead. Throughout the rest of the film, whether in the flashbacks of the '70s or Fielding's campaign in the '80s, Sarah is ever present -- a ghost when not onscreen. He is convinced that she is there with him at all times, but what her purpose is will perhaps always remain unknown. As his obsessive love for her is rekindled, he believes she is physically there with him in the sidelines, but Gordon allows you to decide whether this is a ghost story or the slow fragmentation of one man's life, when time collides and the past and present merge.

It sounds very complicated from the plot description -- a mix of political struggles and true love. While it is a rigorous story, moving in a non-linear mode which can be difficult to follow, the emotions are simple and clear, and the central relationship between Sarah and Fielding is the heart of this film, accessible and within the realm of understanding. It's one of the most accurate depictions of romantic love I've seen onscreen.

Keith Gordon has always had a great gift for working with actors, having once been an actor himself. Gary Sinise and Nick Nolte gave the best work of their careers in A Midnight Clear and Mother Night, respectively. Here, Billy Crudup establishes himself as a handsome leading man who can also act. He has a powerful scene late in the film where he's breaking down at a dinner table, repeating the same sentences over and over again.

Jennifer Connelly is a revelation -- an actress I've never found compelling or interesting before, yet wonderfully dynamic and funny here. There's just something about her performance, the way she tilts her head or says something, which rings true. When she says to Crudup, "It's infuriating how much I love you," after a fight, it's a moment we've felt before. The word I would keep coming back to is honesty in her work with Crudup. Gordon brought something out of her, something radiant and powerful, which hasn't been evident before.

There's also something of Kubrick in the austere visuals. Fielding sitting in a chair with a vast wall behind him, or the proximity of his face to Sarah's as they lay in bed together, or the slow, slow zooms in to Fielding's face as he begins to crack, amplified by the slow, brooding electronic score which runs through all of Gordon's films.

The deliberately disorienting movement of the story from past to present and dwelling on smaller beats in-between takes us through an emotional arc we're not used to in our expectation of a story. I wish more films adopted this collage approach, allowing each small piece to build until we have a vivid picture which throws a more accurate reflection of the life we know than the standard three act formula plot. Think about it: How our memories guide and define our actions today, and how the implications of our days past affect our moral choices now.

By the time Gordon has reached his penultimate scene, we've had a staggering journey through a person's life, and a small moment of clarity that may not be easy, or even what we want, but it sums up Sarah's point made earlier in the film. "Some people fulfill their dream, and that's a pity. Then there are some people who find what they're meant to do."

When the Dead awaken.


Comments

Waking the Dead Rating

" Essential "

Rating: R, 1999

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