Waking the Dead

"Essential"

Waking the Dead Review


Keith Gordon is one of the best filmmakers we have working today, and he's been quietly building a strong body of work which merits attention. His cult classic anti-war film, A Midnight Clear and his tour de force adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night were two of the 15 or 20 best American films to come out in the 1990s. Gordon is particularly good at visualizing internal landscapes, particularly slow collapses into paralyzing madness and terrible guilt.

It's difficult to say whether or not Waking the Dead is his best film, since it's one of those movies which seeps into you as you view it, then stays with you in the days that follow. It's certainly his most challenging in terms of tone, structure, and theme, deliberately convoluted and fragmented, moving back and forth between two different, contrasting eras (the idealistic '70s and the aggressively opportunistic '80s) and the evolution of its deeply troubled central character, Fielding Pierce (Billy Crudup).

Fielding has idealistic hopes in his youth to do some small good in the world within a liberal political system, but for much of the film he is caught between his personal ambition for success and those hopeful dreams of social change. He comes from a struggling blue-collar family and has worked enormously hard to get to where he is, but where is that place, and what is it he really wanted in the first place?

Gordon's theme is idealism, and that is closely connected with Fielding's spiritual love and connection with Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connelly,) a young hippie and political activist who works with Fielding's deadbeat brother (raspy Paul Hipp). The opening scenes in 1972 play out as colorful and a little goofy, and Gordon draws out a few silly moments between Fielding and his brother to the point where an audience may become a little restless, but stick with the film.

It's slow, methodical, economical -- it requires some patience because it's a movie with allows itself to breathe, easing slowly into a romantic story on par with Casablanca, a fine companion piece which was also more a story about struggles with idealism than true love. If you ask me, that makes the romance in these films all the more powerful and stirring.

This romance plays out against the backdrop of political change and social activism. They care for each other because they both want to make those changes to better society, but their approaches are wildly different. Fielding wants to change from the inside, administratively, first as a district attorney and, ultimately, as the president. Sarah moves in different circles, with protestors and radicals. The film could have easily become bogged down in moral postulating, but it keeps its message clear and direct.

Gordon is also particularly good at handling the sensual nature of their relationship, which is playful and sweet. When they're debating a hot issue, and Fielding is starting to go off on her, she starts kissing his stomach. "Hey, what are you doing? Stop that. I'm having a moment here." he says, laughing. "I had a point I was trying to make..."

The opening scene in the film clearly establishes the event which will haunt Fielding through the entire film, as he witnesses a car accident on television and learns that Sarah is dead. Throughout the rest of the film, whether in the flashbacks of the '70s or Fielding's campaign in the '80s, Sarah is ever present -- a ghost when not onscreen. He is convinced that she is there with him at all times, but what her purpose is will perhaps always remain unknown. As his obsessive love for her is rekindled, he believes she is physically there with him in the sidelines, but Gordon allows you to decide whether this is a ghost story or the slow fragmentation of one man's life, when time collides and the past and present merge.

It sounds very complicated from the plot description -- a mix of political struggles and true love. While it is a rigorous story, moving in a non-linear mode which can be difficult to follow, the emotions are simple and clear, and the central relationship between Sarah and Fielding is the heart of this film, accessible and within the realm of understanding. It's one of the most accurate depictions of romantic love I've seen onscreen.

Keith Gordon has always had a great gift for working with actors, having once been an actor himself. Gary Sinise and Nick Nolte gave the best work of their careers in A Midnight Clear and Mother Night, respectively. Here, Billy Crudup establishes himself as a handsome leading man who can also act. He has a powerful scene late in the film where he's breaking down at a dinner table, repeating the same sentences over and over again.

Jennifer Connelly is a revelation -- an actress I've never found compelling or interesting before, yet wonderfully dynamic and funny here. There's just something about her performance, the way she tilts her head or says something, which rings true. When she says to Crudup, "It's infuriating how much I love you," after a fight, it's a moment we've felt before. The word I would keep coming back to is honesty in her work with Crudup. Gordon brought something out of her, something radiant and powerful, which hasn't been evident before.

There's also something of Kubrick in the austere visuals. Fielding sitting in a chair with a vast wall behind him, or the proximity of his face to Sarah's as they lay in bed together, or the slow, slow zooms in to Fielding's face as he begins to crack, amplified by the slow, brooding electronic score which runs through all of Gordon's films.

The deliberately disorienting movement of the story from past to present and dwelling on smaller beats in-between takes us through an emotional arc we're not used to in our expectation of a story. I wish more films adopted this collage approach, allowing each small piece to build until we have a vivid picture which throws a more accurate reflection of the life we know than the standard three act formula plot. Think about it: How our memories guide and define our actions today, and how the implications of our days past affect our moral choices now.

By the time Gordon has reached his penultimate scene, we've had a staggering journey through a person's life, and a small moment of clarity that may not be easy, or even what we want, but it sums up Sarah's point made earlier in the film. "Some people fulfill their dream, and that's a pity. Then there are some people who find what they're meant to do."

When the Dead awaken.



Facts and Figures

Run time: 105 mins

In Theaters: Friday 24th March 2000

Box Office Worldwide: $327.4 thousand

Budget: $85M

Distributed by: USA Home Entertainment

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 5 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 51%
Fresh: 28 Rotten: 27

IMDB: 6.7 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director:

Starring: as Fielding Pierce, as Sarah Williams, as Danny Pierce, as Isaac Green, as Gisela Higgens, as Governor Kinosis, as Jerry Charmichael, as Caroline Pierce, as Juliet Beck, as Angelo Bertelli, as Fielding's Father, as Tony Dayton, as Adele Green, as Kim

Contactmusic


Links



Advertisement

Contactmusic 2017 Exclusive

New Movies

Fences Movie Review

Fences Movie Review

After winning Tony Awards on Broadway, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis reteam for a film...

The Lego Batman Movie Movie Review

The Lego Batman Movie Movie Review

A spin-off from 2014's awesome The Lego Movie, this raucously paced action-comedy is proof that...

The Space Between Us Movie Review

The Space Between Us Movie Review

While the premise of this movie makes it look like a sci-fi adventure, the truth...

Toni Erdmann Movie Review

Toni Erdmann Movie Review

On paper, the idea of a two-hour 40-minute German comedy may not seem very promising,...

Gold Movie Review

Gold Movie Review

Based on a true story, this lively and sometimes outrageous adventure is packed with twists...

Loving Movie Review

Loving Movie Review

While this film tackles a huge issue in the history of race relations in America,...

T2 Trainspotting Movie Review

T2 Trainspotting Movie Review

It's been 20 years since we last saw four freewheeling young junkies from Edinburgh spiral...

Advertisement
Hacksaw Ridge Movie Review

Hacksaw Ridge Movie Review

Based on an astounding true story, this battlefield drama mixes warm emotion with intense action...

Sing Movie Review

Sing Movie Review

The quality of the animation in this musical comedy may not be up to Pixar...

Jackie Movie Review

Jackie Movie Review

Rather than make a standard biopic about the most famous First Lady in American history,...

Split Movie Review

Split Movie Review

After a few badly received sci-fi blockbusters, M. Night Shyamalan returned to his earthier style...

xXx: Return of Xander Cage Movie Review

xXx: Return of Xander Cage Movie Review

It's been 15 years since Vin Diesel walked away from his XXX role, killing off...

Manchester by the Sea Movie Review

Manchester by the Sea Movie Review

This may not be the cheeriest movie of the season, but it's so skilfully written,...

Live By Night Movie Review

Live By Night Movie Review

Ben Affleck launched his directing career 10 years ago with his film of Dennis Lehane's...

Advertisement
Artists
Actors
    Filmmakers
      Artists
      Bands
        Musicians
          Artists
          Celebrities
             
              Artists
              Interviews
                musicians & bands in the news
                  actors & filmmakers in the news
                    celebrities in the news

                      Go Back in Time using our News archive to see what happened on a particular day in the past.