“Have you heard of attachment theory? It describes our need, psychologically, to form close relationships, to reach out to intimates. We need such relationships to conceal the awful truth, which we confront as we grow up, that each of us is alone. The greatest battle of human existence is to come to terms with that fact.”
This exchange comes about two-thirds of the way through Arthur Clarke & Stephen Baxter’s science fiction novel THE LIGHT OF OTHER DAYS, as one character tries reminding a technologically addicted friend what’s truly important. Robert Redford’s 1980 film ORDINARY PEOPLE has nothing to do with high technology, but everything to do with the terrain Clarke & Baxter spoke of – the wilderness of human connectivity.
Based on Judith Guest’s novel of the same name, the film follows the dissolution of an upper middle class family, the Jarretts, after the death of their eldest son. In its broadest outline, that makes the film sound as superficial as many of the weepy domestic television movies that followed ORDINARY PEOPLE, but Guest had the instinct and the talent to look deeper and x-ray her characters, and Redford had the good graces to follow her lead with how he brought the book to life.
This is not a message movie; if anything, it is about confronting the truth, both about ourselves and those around us, and, as Martin Scorsese pointed out in his introduction to Ciment’s book KUBRICK, “…No matter how comfortable we think we are with the truth, it always comes as a profound shock when we are forced to meet it face-to-face.”
Every film is defined by the director’s choices, not just where they put the camera, but also what they restrain themselves from doing, and this film is a masterclass in the courageousness of playing everything in a minor key, something all the more striking since it was Redford’s directorial debut.
Again unlike many of the family dramas that succeeded ORDINARY PEOPLE, this is a film with minimal music or directorial flourishes; Redford keeps his focus on his story and his actors, but Redford also allows his painterly eye (for Redford did, as he told James Lipton, consider a career as an artist in his younger days) to tell the story in a powerfully casual way. Indeed, many shots in the film could be a heartbreaking still life.
Any successful movie sets up its mood and tone from the outset, and Redford’s calm confidence is crystal clear in his lyrical opening sequence. ORDINARY PEOPLE was largely shot in and around Chicago, and we begin with gorgeous shots of autumn in the Midwestern U.S., as we hear Noel Goemanne’s choral version of Pachelbel’s Canon in D (Redford hired Marvin Hamlisch to do the specific arrangements for the film).
Pachelbel’s tune becomes the musical signature of the whole picture (though used sparingly), and it is a sublime choice. In this sort of emotional story, the temptation is to use the music to force a response; Canon in D is a classical piece that is, curiously, not any single emotion, but it consistently keeps us in a contemplative mood.
Using the changing seasons to illustrate the changes in people may be far from original, but it is sensitively and appropriately used in this film; we begin as the autumn leaves are changing and the picture ends during an early winter thaw, as Conrad and his father openly talk and embrace for the first time in a long time.
The autumnal view foreshadows the changes in the characters, but the very first thing we see in the opening shot is of the waterfront, where the cause of the tragedy that precedes the story happened, and from which all the seismic shifts in Conrad, Beth, and Calvin precipitate.
After the evocative opening shots, we push in on a high school where we hear the choir rehearsing the Canon, and we hear Goemanne’s lyrics for Pachelbel:
In the silence of our souls O Lord,
We contemplate Thy peace
Free from all the world’s desires
Free from fear and all anxiety
It is never clear whether Conrad is attending a private school or not, so it is a unique choice for a school to be performing music with any religious connotations, but the lyrics do reflect the “surcease of sorrow” (to quote Poe) that Conrad needs, which we clearly see when he bolts up in bed in the following scene, a textbook portrait of anxiety and depression. Conrad also mentions later in the film that he’s an atheist; might this view be a backlash to his schooling, if he attends a religious secondary school?
We never learn if this opening is a flashback to Conrad’s serene life before the death of his brother, or if it’s just a dream that temporarily gives him some peace, but either way we are instantly shown something is boiling inside this young man.
With Conrad firmly placed on the story’s stage, we are next introduced to his parents, Calvin and Beth, as they attend a local production of SAME TIME, NEXT YEAR. As he later did for 2004’s SPIDER-MAN 2 (where Oscar Wilde’s THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST made subtle comments about honesty and identity apropos for a masked superhero and his would-be girlfriend), screenwriter Alvin Sargent uses a play within the play to make a nice ironic point about the characters’ lives; the dialogue here (“What I do know is that in the last 24 years, I’ve never been out of love with you”) echoes with a vengeance at the end of the picture.
This husband and wife are able to make small talk with such ease (with their friends as well as each other) that we might be forgiven for not guessing the family has been through such trauma recently; it could be excused as how determined they both are to return to normal, but the repression in this house becomes clear once they’re home.
Calvin makes a point of checking in on his son when he notices the boy’s light on in his room. Yes, he tries making sure his son is alright (unlike Beth, who just goes to bed), but the marvelously subtle performances of Donald Sutherland and Timothy Hutton reveal how much in this family goes unspoken, as Calvin gently but forcefully suggests his boy see a shrink as planned, while Conrad insists he’s fine.
The elephant in the room is the set of scars on Conrad’s wrist, in clear view as Hutton rests his head on his arm. Watch the actors’ eyes and body language as they talk around what Conrad has done in the past, and it’s clear how Conrad’s guilt and sense of blame stayed buried until he did something so drastic.
The crux of the story becomes how the three of them circle around the painful past they all share; Calvin and his surviving son become more communicative: Conrad, once his reluctance fades, has his psychiatrist (Judd Hirsch, in a wonderful performance), and Calvin talks with his business partner and friends at parties with greater ease than he does with anyone at home.
Beth, however (whether by choice or from upbringing), tries looking the other way as long as possible; even conversations with her own mother have a frigidity that Eskimos would be in awe of.
Through his analyst, Conrad comes to terms with his guilt over not only his brother’s death, but also his own subsequent suicide attempt. “I don’t want to hurt myself. I want to stop hurting,” said one character in Wallace’s INFINITE JEST, and Conrad’s interior monologue is probably not much different. Still, he doesn’t arrive at easy answers; Dr. Berger’s words are great but the real emotion in the powerhouse scene between them as Conrad confronts everything comes from Conrad trying to internalize the doctor’s words, something that can take years to do.
Conrad’s wrenching scene with Dr. Berger is not only flawlessly written and acted, but it also is revealing about Redford’s direction: this scene reaches the emotion solely on the writing & performances, no music. This is the strategy Redford has done through the whole film, but in the last 20 minutes of this film, it adds up to an emotional crescendo rivaling the best music.
This scene would’ve been the end of a lesser film, but thankfully nothing is tied up with a bow; as we see in the final scene between himself and Calvin, Conrad is still quick to blame himself for anything that goes wrong, so he still has growing to do by the end of the film. Redford, as Judith Guest did in her beautiful novel, sidesteps any instant solutions.
The worst thing that happened to ORDINARY PEOPLE was its success at the Academy Awards; beating put Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece RAGING BULL for the Best Picture and Director prizes has created tremendous backlash toward the movie in recent years among film buffs, but ORDINARY PEOPLE has tremendous staying power on its own terms. Sam Mendes cited this as one of the films that influenced his look at dysfunctional suburbia, 1999’s AMERICAN BEAUTY, which is clear in scenes like the dinners in Burnham house: just as Redford had done, Mendes shows most of his trio in wide shots at the dinner table, saving the close-ups for his punctuation marks.
The best fiction is at its best when all walls fall away, and we become wrapped in the gauze of a beautiful lie that speaks the truth; ORDINARY PEOPLE does this as few films do. There may be nothing we can do to stop the coming of what Hamlet dubbed “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to,” but, as the Jarretts learn the hard way, how we react to those blows will change our lives.
Copyright (c) 2018 by Eric Peeper