Two movies: one rooted in fear, one in narcissism.

The Strangers & Savage Grace

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


 

            People who love an element of fear in their recreational pleasure are likely to love being scared out of their wits when they go to the movies. They will love “The Strangers.” The rest of us will sit scrunched in our seats, eyes closed for most of its running time. Why does a decent but ordinary chiller frighten us so?

            For one thing, the invasion of a home by strangers is simply unthinkable. Once that door is shut, we feel safe. Well, not here. Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman) are driving to the country home of James’ parents after a wedding reception where James proposed; a surprised Kristen turned him down - kindly but firmly. They will spend the night at the house as planned followed by an early departure. Director Brian Bertino, whose first film this is, builds fine tension as the couple’s car passes through territory more and more sparsely settled. The house is dark and empty, nestled in a grove of dark tree trunks.

            By the time they talk through their situation, it is the middle of the night. Then, the knock. And so we meet the first of the strangers, a woman who asks only “Is Tamara here?” From this point to the end, a series of carefully placed thuds, bangs, and knocks leads us to the finale which is not, believe me, a resolution. This is one of those movies that ends with a question mark.

            Director Bertino knows how to use silence to generate fear. His couple, frozen in terror, doesn’t babble; his masked villains don’t babble. The soundtrack is often silent. If fear fuels you, you’ll be happy here.

            “Savage Grace,” on the other hand, is equal parts repulsive and fascinating – repulsive because of the destruction of a son by his mother, fascinating as a parable of the bored decadence that so often infects the idle rich. Barbara Baekeland (Julianne Moore) is the pretentious American who can never raise her coloration to the level of her husband Brooks (Stephen Dillane), heir to the Bakelite fortune.

                The fatal flaw here is that this is a movie of unconnected episodes. It flits from one destructive scene to the next without connective tissue leaving us only a splintered family flailing at each other and failing at whatever life puts on the path. Barbara, as her husband says, is “an amalgam of paranoia and spite.” She erupts in periodic cruelty as she tries to establish herself in France, Spain, and England over thirty years starting in 1946. The primary casualty of this story is Barbara’s son, Tony (Eddie Redmayne), doomed from the beginning by his mother’s narcissism. You will see infidelity, incest, gay sex, group sex, straight sex and multiple betrayals - all smothered in possessive and smothering maternal love. And the boldface reality of this movie, the most chilling fact of all, is that it is a true story.

 


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