Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Ordinary People (Mostly) Works as a Grim Family Drama

Ordinary People begins on an appropriately slower note as we follow the day-to-day lives of the Jarrett family. Father Calvin (Donald Sutherland), mother Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) and their only child, Conrad (Timothy Hutton), seem to be doing everything you'd expect a middle-class family to do. There isn't a raised voice to be found nor so much as a pillow out of place. But something isn't right in Conrad. He just can't adjust to this normalcy, something is gnawing at him. Thus, he begins to see a therapist, Dr. Tyrone C. Berger (Judd Hirsch). Their sessions aren't exactly rife with Earth-shattering revelations but at least Conrad has someone to talk to.

Communication isn't exactly something that's in abundant supply with his parents, particularly Beth. This lack of personal expression means that Conrad's reason for being so tormented is kept bottled up inside. Eventually, we learn that Conrad wasn't always an only child. He had a brother who perished during a boating accident. That information is doled out gradually across Ordinary People as the Jarrett family comes to terms with how their individual ways of processing grief are impacting one another. Soft-spoken Calvin prefers to a more delicate approach to trauma while Beth is interested in sweeping things under the rug. Caught in between these two polar opposites, Conrad has struggled to figure out how to move on and accept the horrors that have transpired in his family.

Alvin Sargent's screenplay is grappling with some thematically hefty material and it's impressive that Robert Redford decided to tackle this story as his directorial debut. No easing his way into the pool of filmmaking for Redford, dude decided to dive headfirst into the water. Luckily, all of that ambition resulted in a really good movie, with Ordinary People only stumbling in the character of Beth. There is an interesting concept at the heart of this figure as a representation of a specific way that humans cope with grief. However, her point-of-view isn't explored with as much depth as Calvin or Conrad. Those two members of the Jarrett family get the screentime necessary to lend shades of depth to their individual perspectives whereas Beth can't help but remain a more broadly-defined creation.

I'll also deliver a semi-hot take here and say that Mary Tyler Moore's performance generated a more mixed response from me. There's some good elements in here, including her subdued reaction to Conrad giving her a hug in the third act and it's incredibly impressive to see Moore constantly swinging for the fences here given how she'd primarily done comedic performances up to this point. For the most part, though, Redford's direction for Moore seems to have been to play things in an uber-broad manner that only helps to reinforce how Beth struggles to emerge as a human being in a movie filled with truly intriguing people. Perhaps the best of the bunch is Calvin, an individual brought to life by a quietly powerful performance by Donald Sutherland.

Sutherland burst onto the scene as a performer with his cocksure lead roles in films like MASH while his modern-day work has been with playing insidious baddies in properties like The Hunger Games, Outbreak or the TV show Trust. With his work as Calvin, Sutherland goes in a vastly different direction that ends up showcasing his gifts as an actor. Sutherland exudes a super believable calm demeanor from the very first scene onward and it becomes riveting to watch this authentically-rendered figure navigating such complex matters like his own son reeling from the death of a sibling. A similarly subdued but compelling turn is delivered from Judd Hirsch in a supporting turn that sees him making for a great worldly foil to Conrad.

Performances like Sutherland's or Hirsch's lend heavy levels of insight into how the characters of Ordinary People operate and the same can be said for the editing by Jeff Kanew. Specifically, the editing used to reflect the characters experiencing flashbacks to traumatic past events is impressively realized. Kanew opts to show only bits and pieces of these moments rather than following them in an easily-understandable linear fashion while they tend to enter the movie in an abrupt fashion. Both qualities of the expert editing impeccably reflect how memories of the past intrude on the minds of Calvin and Conrad without a moments' notice. That thoughtful visual quality helps to make Ordinary People such an effective movie and why crucial sequences like the climactic "I'm your friend" scene work as well as they do.

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