ORDINARY PEOPLE Review
In the affluent and snowy suburbs of Chicago, a mourning is taking place. Amid those vast homes, with their equally vast spaces, a chilly quiet takes hold of the members of the Jarrett family. Calvin (Donald Sutherland) and Beth (Mary Tyler Moore), the parents, try to move past the tragic loss of their oldest son, Buck; their other child, the younger Conrad (Timothy Hutton), only feels blame and is seemingly resigned to a life of self-inflicted punishment. At one time a successful high school student and athlete, Conrad’s devastating guilt now controls his life, plastering his face with unmitigated sorrow that isn’t fooling anyone about his current headspace; not his parents (much as Beth tries), not his neighbors, and certainly not the students and coaches and teachers of his school. An emotional release must come to this family, but in their own ways, they all hold it in.
This is where we find ourselves as ghostly voyeurs: watching these supposed ORDINARY PEOPLE come to grips with an unthinkable tragedy. Robert Redford, stepping behind the camera as director, working from a screenplay by Alvin Sargent who adapted the story from a novel by Judith Guest, simply allows us to drift among these affluent mourners. Through the halls of large and prestigious houses, past snowy or autumnal lawns, Redford, with assistance from cinematographer John Bailey, flows past these picturesque locales to find a glimpse of something much more vulnerable lurking beneath all the affluence . Like other dramas of the 70’s through the early 80’s, Redford grants the plight of the Jarrett’s a certain kind of gritty authenticity to their problems, interspersing woozily edited flashbacks and montages among increasingly fraught arguments and self-realizations. In this depiction of familial grief, there are no easy answers or way outs. Certainly not for Conrad.
Becoming the surprise central protagonist of this tale, which seemed to heavily advertise that Mr. Sutherland and Ms. Tyler Moore would lead, the youngest Jarrett instead centers the film. As portrayed in a genuinely impressive (and FIRST TIME!!) performance by the young Mr. Hutton, Conrad becomes the audiences’ sympathetic tether as Redford teases out the hauntings of the young man’s mind and how it impacts his relationships. In a portrait of a young man teetering on the edge of self destruction, Hutton finds a compelling inner sadness that tragically struggles to make itself known to the ones around him. While his loving father, a man who seemingly loves everyone, can only watch in agony as his son drifts further towards some irreversible conclusion, his mother seemingly only continues to push him away. Even if they don’t necessarily become the leads as the somber ads might imply, Mr. Sutherland and Ms. Tyler Moore make impressionable imprints on the film, capably showcasing the ways people can either overcome tragedy or become shackled by it. Sutherland, with his piercing blue eyes, negates that natural physical intensity into something that hews closer to yearning as he struggles in vain to keep his family together while Tyler Moore’s Beth holds in her own volatile emotions, leading her to become the film’s “antagonist”.
But antagonist is too harsh a term. In the throes of grief, everyone becomes something they were not, forever altered by the past. In Beth’s case, the death of her son only allows her to see an accident that could’ve been prevented and Conrad, as a consequence, only acts as a terrible reminder of that. In Tyler Moore’s performance, a pained mother unintentionally becomes the villain of her family, but only because she can’t quite figure out how to voice her concerns, her fears, and her pains to not only her husband, but a son who so desperately needs her. Sadly, despite her hearty impact on the film as it goes towards a quietly devastating conclusion, it’s a shame that the film feels like it sidelines her the most, intentional or not. On that note, it’s hard at times to really appreciate Tyler Moore’s performance, as her character gets less focus compared to her husband and son, moving a mother’s pain to the sidelines.
Nevertheless, ORDINARY PEOPLE feels true to its characters. As Redford and Sargent detail, everyone goes through grief in different ways and from an almost scientific observation, it’s genuinely intriguing to see Calvin, Beth, and Conrad figure out how to live their lives and move on. While Calvin and Beth step around the pain, Conrad at points tries to embrace his and understand it through the help of local psychiatrist, Dr. Berger (the enjoyably gruff and sincere Judd Hirsch), whose interactions with Conrad bring to mind the back and forth of Matt Damon and Robin Williams in GOOD WILL HUNTING. While Dr. Berger and Conrad’s sessions can at times feel a little too overdramatic, Redford never loses control of the seriousness and sincerity of these scenes, allowing Hirsch and Hutton to bounce and clash with one another on the road to some type of recovery.
And as we see, the road to recovery is never easy. That remains the harsh beauty of a film like this, where an honest showing of grief is prided over the theatrics of a happy or even conclusive ending. Things don’t quite come together in the end in Redford’s film because how could they? The death of a family member not only shatters the physical aspects of a family but everything else as well. As ORDINARY PEOPLE reveals in an ending tinged paradoxically with tragedy and hope, everyone can move on past a dire calamity, but the how’s and why’s of their movement can sometimes be as equally painful as the death that set everything off.