Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Waking the Dead

By Marc Savlov

MARCH 28, 2000: 

D: Keith Gordon; with Billy Crudup, Jennifer Connelly, Hal Holbrook, Molly Parker, Janet McTeer, Sandra Oh, Lawrence Dane. (R, 103 min.)

Director Keith Gordon, who will be forever stuck in my mind as the shrill, cursed protagonist of John Carpenter's Stephen King knockoff Christine (not to mention the oddball Peter in Dressed to Kill),has gone on to better things despite some early miscues. For one thing, he's more or less left acting for a seat behind the camera, directing the brilliantly evocative anti-war film A Midnight Clear, as well as the problematic Vonnegut adaptation Mother Night. No one can say this guy doesn't have his heart in the right place; his films have displayed a gentle surrealism that's unlike that of anyone else working today. He's sometimes concerned more with the frailties of human emotion than with the people themselves, although his characters ­ and indeed the actors he chooses ­ are notable for their almost existential troubles. No one gets off easy in Gordon's work, from Gary Sinise's battle-scarred Mother in A Midnight Clear to pretty much any character you'd care to name in Waking the Dead, a film that falls just short of the director's usual unerring skill by a single sorrowful breath. Crudup plays Fielding Pierce, a young straight-arrow Coast Guard officer in 1973 who falls in love with Connelly's idealistic hippie chick Sarah Williams, despite their conservative vs. liberal backgrounds. As the romance blossoms, the pair spend hours discussing how best to change the world. In between bouts of lovemaking they lie on her tattered bedspread, candles guttering in the background, and banter back and forth, each one arguing their case. Fielding is intent on changing the system from within ­ by becoming a senator, or maybe even president ­ while Sarah takes the moral high ground, saying that the only way out of the system is around the system. It's all a bit much, but the two idealists keep it going for as long as they can, or at least until Sarah is apparently killed by a car bomb while attempting to rescue some Chilean immigrants from Allende's thugs. "Apparently" is the crux of the matter here, as Fielding, 10 years later and teetering on the cusp of a senatorship, begins to see his dead girlfriend everywhere he goes. Is she just a mental phantasm, some sort of self-induced moral compass, or is she still alive? To say any more would spoil the fun, what there is of it, though I think Gordon's film is one of the more adult psychological thrillers/love stories around these days. Crudup and Connelly work well together, emitting showers of sparks as they should, and a scene in which Fielding breaks down at his family's dinner table is both shocking and pitiful. He's an actor who's managed to slip past my radar since his great turn in Inventing the Abbotts, but with Waking the Dead he downright shines, albeit in a somewhat gloomy way. Not to everyone's taste, Gordon's film bounces back and forth in time from the early Seventies to the early Eighties, and the ricochet motion of the plot can be jarring at times. That said, the film is one of the more adult offerings out there in a spring movie season peppered with martial arts and superheroes. It may be just what you're looking for.

2.5 Stars

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