Grace Is Gone (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

If Martian Child is the price film goers must pay in order to get Grace Is Gone, then it's a worthwhile trade. This low-key drama, the directorial debut of James C. Strouse, is the kind of opportunity that real actors relish. With a minimalist plot, Grace Is Gone turns its primary focus on John Cusack, giving the actor an opportunity to display both his talent and his range. One can argue that the premise is not a can't miss proposition, but with Cusack in the camera's crosshairs, the situation's poignancy seems genuine rather than exploitative.

Stanley Phillips (Cusack) is a manager at a Home Depot clone. It's not his dream job. He wants to be in the army, but unacceptably poor vision disqualified him. So, instead of being with the troops in Iraq, he mans the home front, caring for his two daughters, 12-year old Heidi (Shelan O'Keefe) and her younger sister, Dawn (Gracie Bednarczyk). But it eats at Stanley that he's stocking shelves and preaching customer service while his wife, Grace, is defending the country. Then, one morning, there's a knock at the door. Stanley opens it and sees two uniformed men. He knows immediately why they are there. They give him the news, but he can't absorb it. Worse, he can't bring himself to tell Heidi and Dawn. Instead, he packs them into the car and begins a spontaneous trip from Minnesota to Florida, the location of their favorite amusement park. But is his intention to give them one last innocent vacation before the winter of grief or to put off the inevitable so he can delay (and thereby deny) the reality of what has happened?

Grief affects everyone differently. Some embrace it in an orgy of tears. Others keep it contained within like some wild beast that must be controlled. Still others seek to ignore it, perhaps not realizing that it is tireless and relentless and will catch up to its quarry eventually. Stanley's coping mechanism involves a little of each. He curls into a fetal position and weeps when he's alone in his room. In front of his daughters, he tries to maintain an aura of normalcy. Heidi recognizes the falseness of the fa├žade but Dawn does not. Stanley calls his home answering machine just to hear his dead wife's voice. Eventually, he begins to record messages to her - pleas for help asking how to communicate with the girls who will never see her again.

The odyssey Stanley takes his daughters on isn't a splurge in the magic of Disneyland. It's a cross-country car ride punctuated by nights spent in cramped motel rooms and hours of unrelieved monotony as towns and states pass by the windows. At the end of the line is a tawdry little place that's no more impressive than the average country fair and is sparsely attended at best. It's sad to recognize that this is what Stanley sees as his daughters' last chance at joy before the realities of a cruel fate are unveiled.

Grace Is Gone isn't about Grace's death or how Stanley tells his children. Instead, it's about one man's attempt to cope with a situation he is unprepared for. Worse, there's an element of guilt involved because, in his heart of hearts, Stanley believes he should have been on the front lines with his wife. Grace Is Gone is about one man's coming to grips with a tragedy that too many families are confronting. The film does not preach, and that's a strength. Stanley is in favor of the war and, while Grace's death shakes his confidence, there is no evidence that it changes his viewpoint. Alessandro Nivola has a small role as Stanley's liberal brother, but his presence in the film is to provoke dramatic conflict, not to grandstand or preach from the pulpit. There is no message here except perhaps that measuring war casualties by the dead and injured greatly underestimates the real number.

Cusack's performance is note-perfect. The film puts all its faith in him and he answers the call. This is also a different Cusack than we are accustomed to seeing. Wounded and grief-stricken, the repressed, internalized Stanley is 180 degrees from the characters Cusack frequently essays. His portrayal of Stanley provides additional evidence, if any was needed, of his range. He is ably supported by two newcomers, Shelan O'Keefe and Gracie Bednarczyk, whose work is naturalistic and unforced.

Like most character-based motion pictures, this one moves slowly and deliberately, with very little happening during the protracted middle segment of the film. Grace Is Gone demands patience and commitment from viewers. It's a bit of a downer (not that one would expect anything else from a movie with this subject matter) but it's never dishonest or overly sentimental. Ultimately, this is worth seeing for Cusack's nuanced and powerful performance and for the emotions that the director successfully excavates.

Grace Is Gone (United States, 2007)

Director: James C. Strouse
Cast: John Cusack, Shelan O'Keefe, Gracie Bednarczyk, Alessandro Nivola
Screenplay: James C. Strouse
Cinematography: Jean-Louise Bompoint
Music: Clint Eastwood
U.S. Distributor: Miramax Films
Run Time: 1:25
U.S. Release Date: 2007-12-07
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1