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Though visually compelling, the lamentable characters in Savage Grace make for difficult viewing.
Though visually compelling, the lamentable characters in Savage Grace make for difficult viewing.
All Critics (92)
| Top Critics (31)
| Fresh (35)
| Rotten (57)
| DVD (4)
While the pace occasionally flags and there are times when we wonder where Kalin is leading us, he maintains a pervasive sense of dread and unease throughout that makes the chilling climax seem both shocking and inevitable.
Though the characters may be repellent, the film permits you to feel sympathy.
It's a horror story, all right, but the reason for telling it remains unclear, and it seems like a waste of Kalin's evident talent.
For that particular someone, Savage Grace could be the perfect summer chiller.ca
Though the film looks elegant, with deceptively simple interiors creating an impression of great wealth, it feels remote. We're impressed by the work the actors are doing, yet the characters don't hold our interest.
Savage Grace contemplates passion without sampling it, though, and the film quickly becomes as remote as a magazine spread.
A spellbinding tale of luxury, incest, madness and matricide...
Ridiculous. An artsy-soapy drawing room study of bored contempt and idle peccadilloes amongst the 1950s-'60s-'70s jet set in Europe.
Superficial dysfunctional story on the rich.
The most shocking thing about Savage Grace is its flatness
A sick-room torpor hangs heavily about this masterfully controlled, elegantly composed movie by Tom Kalin.
Provocative but frustratingly shallow.
When a film critic describes a film as â€˜admirableâ€™, it is usually a polite way of saying that the film is disappointing. You have to admire Steven Spielberg for making Schindlerâ€™s List, or Terry Gilliam for finishing The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. But all the good feeling and intentions in the world do not make these good films; often oneâ€™s admiration for one aspect of a film is quickly followed by a damning attack on the rest.
You would imagine that Savage Grace would fall into the same camp. Itâ€™s certainly admirable in its intentions; the story of Barbara Daly Baekeland remains a bizarre open secret, shocking in its time but long since forgotten. And there is no doubt that in its execution and structure, it is not an unconditional success. Savage Grace is a twisted and difficult film, and at times it is very hard to feel involved in what is unfolding. But for those who would endure its unusual approach and overlook its weaknesses, it is a thought-provoking and shocking story anchored by a brilliant central performance.
Itâ€™s easy to make a film about rich, successful people having problems; Ishmael Merchant and James Ivory made a career out of it. Itâ€™s much harder to make us care about such people, whose problems often have little direct bearing on our own lives. Savage Grace makes this task harder because of the way in which its subject is presented. Tom Kalinâ€™s direction is unflinchingly cool; he never wimps out during the graphic or disturbing scenes, but it often feels like youâ€™re watching the film through a series of murky windows. The characters are very difficult to get a handle on; unlike Lolita, there is no central figure with whom we emotionally identify.
In other films, this distance would irritate us to the point at which we give up. But if you compare this to the similarly glacial Public Enemies, you begin to understand Kalinâ€™s reasoning. Public Enemies attempted to paint a nostalgic picture of 1930s America, with John Dillinger as both its greatest hero and biggest criminal. But the ultra-modern hand-held shooting style was at odds with this nostalgia, meaning that audiences simply could not bond with the characters. Savage Grace is not in the least bit nostalgic for either the period or its social graces; its stately camera work allows us to dissect the period through the tragic central story. We learn to accept the characters as products of a lifestyle, rather than as a series of irritating bores.
Savage Grace takes the Baekelandsâ€™ story and uses it as the prism for an examination of success. It argues that such insane levels of wealth and luxury breed deep-rooted mental insecurity, and much like American Psycho it paints a picture of material success as something morally empty and vacuous. The central lines of the film are spoken by Tony in the narration: â€œOne of the uses of money is that it allows us not to live with the consequences of our mistakes.â€� It is quite clear from the events which follow, and in the manner in which they play out, that both Tony and Kalin disagree.
The film is centrally about the suffocating influence of wealth and family. This is on one level literally true, since at the end of the film we are told that Tony died by suffocating himself with a plastic bag (an ironic death, since his family made their fortune in plastics). But it is conveyed on a deeper level by the relationship between Tony and his mother. This begins safely enough; Barbara is presented as someone who is flamboyant, provocative and occasionally outspoken, but generally concerned with improving her husbandâ€™s image. But after he begins an affair, she steadily transforms into a far more twisted and bizarre creature. Her protective attitude towards Tony becomes even more marked; she treats her son like a surrogate husband, consummating their incest and despising the thought of him having gay lovers.
The film rises and falls on the performance of Julianne Moore, who is on startling, spellbinding form. Itâ€™s very hard to think of anybody else who could pull off such a complex role. Mooreâ€™s beauty has an old-fashioned elegance to it which is perfect for the character, and the script offers her many juicy lines in several different languages. But itâ€™s her outbursts which brilliantly reveal the monster inside; someone who is spiteful, vicious, overprotective and self-loathing. Moore really taps into the character, playing her as essentially a tragic figure who silently craves affection.
The central scene of Savage Grace comes when Barbara goes to the airport to meet her husband. She finds him with his mistress, a girl who only minutes earlier was her sonâ€™s girlfriend. She unleashes a carefully choreographed hell, calling him a coward and the girl a whore, followed by a blistering tirade about his penchant for anal sex. Having said all she can but to no avail, she walks outside and slowly disintegrates. This is the moment at which Barbara begins the irreversible decline into mental illness and sexual waywardness. Her dress, which looks blood-spattered, is a possible reference to the pig-blood scene in Carrie: both instances are the first time the characters are able to direct their rage and use it for destructive purposes.
Eventually, the film shifts and becomes more about the madness of Tony, which eventually leads him to murder his mother with a kitchen knife. There is very little exploration as to the precise cause of his madness; their relationship is not strictly oedipal, since Tony does not hate his father. There are comparisons with Psycho in the way in which Barbara dominates Tonyâ€™s life, and the narration does suggest that her death was what such domination would eventually cause. The biggest clue comes in the killer line as Tony is led away: â€œI have so much in my head, which to let it out would surely kill me. Nevertheless, I feel better now.â€�
The problems with Savage Grace are to be found in little oddities in Kalinâ€™s approach. A lot of his decisions donâ€™t make sense until the very end of the film, in particular the narration. At the end it works wonders once we realise we are listening to the cracked mind of a killer, and we wonder just how long he has been crazy. But up until that point, it irons out many potentially dramatic scenes, reducing them to bland exposition.
The significance of the dog collar is never explained; it is brought up occasionally and used as a trigger for the murder, but its actual meaning is never properly explored. Much like Donâ€™t Look Now, many of the visual devices simply donâ€™t work early on. Reversing the film to show Tony writing backwards is a really cheap trick, and is shot in a way which feels closer to The Time Machine than to psychosexual drama.
Savage Graceâ€™s flaws are clear for all to see. It is a film to be admired rather than enjoyed â€" certainly itâ€™s not the sort of thing youâ€™d kick back to after a long day. But buried beneath its problems and unusual style is a shocking story which deserved to be told and which has been handled in the most honest way possible. Many scenes are very difficult to watch and the whole film has a really creepy tone in the best possible way. Above all it is a damning and frightening indictment of inherited wealth and the resulting moral vacuum, exemplified by Julianne Moore in her best performance since The Hours. Kalin may make better, more accessible films, but this is an interesting effort which gives American Psycho a run for its money.
"Truth is more shocking than fiction."
A dramatization of the shocking Barbara Daly Baekeland murder case, which happened in a posh London flat on Friday 17 November 1972. The bloody crime caused a stir on both sides of the Atlantic and remains one of the most memorable American Tragedies...
Circling around Savage Grace is this insane self-contained vortex of almost inhuman behavior, a white trash atom bomb just barely held back at the seams by these delusions of class and nobility. Director Tom Kalin is this story's downfall; he doesn't know how to efficiently drip in these juicy little bits of drama and create a cohesive narrative at the same time, so what we end up with here is a tangential collection of really bizarre shocking scenes.
This movie is nowhere near good. There are traces of absolute exquisiteness to be found in the writing, visual composition, and narrative, and Julianne Moore's performance is one of the bravest and most thoughtful she's given in years. Savage Grace is clearly a movie informed by some really sensational tidbits. The problem is they just don't come together to make anything worth championing. The movie is wildly entertaining trash dressed up real pretty, which renders it this awesomely self-aware yet bizarrely delusional piece of uniqueness. It really does have to be seen to be believed.
The more I say about this experience, the more it will compromise it for you, as going into the movie with a clean slate will make the film all the more shocking and ribald and utterly hilarious. Anyway, there's nothing quite like this to be seen in 2008, and if you're a fan of Moore or just over-the-top drama this is a definite must. It's divisive and your mileage may vary, but I think everyone should give it a shot.
[size=3]"Savage Grace," which has a stunning cast led by [b]Julianne Moore[/b], is a complex, beautiful, dark film. It has its weaknesses, such as the tendency toward dramatic slackness in the first two-thirds. But it also has extraordinary strengths. The dramatic slackness, it should be said, is overcome in the final part of the film, and the audience is treated to one of the most shocking endings in cinema history.[/size]
[size=3]"Savage Grace" is also packed with ideas, most of which are troubling, and has some of the most accomplished direction and most soulful cinematography of 2008. It also is one of the most courageous fillms of the decade. Ms. Moore in particular must be commended for her willingness to take on a deeply disturbing role, doing things on screen with her body that will make your skin crawl. [/size]
[size=3]For a major movie star to do things like this on screen is nothing short of heroic. She's risking her career in the mainstream to commit to true art, deserving a medal for artistic integrity and bravery. Hollywood needs more stars like Julianne Moore.[/size]
[size=3]"Savage Grace" is based on a nonfiction book about a man who ended up in prison. (I won't tell you why he was incarcerated.) The book focused on his family, in particular his relationship with his mother. A talented young actor named [b]Eddie Redmayne[/b] plays the son. Moore plays his mother and [b]Stephen Dillane[/b] his father. Dillane is just as impressive as Moore and Redmayne, incidentally. This cast is one of the great ensembles of 2008.[/size]
[size=3]The film provides a guided tour of one of the most dysfunctional families in human history, and also one of the most interesting. So many horrific things occur in this family. I don't want to give away any of the bombshells, but to provide a glimpse: when the son gets his first girlfriend, his father ends up seducing the girl and sleeping with her. This is just one example of the spectacularly strange ways that this family works out its Oedipal drama.[/size]
[size=3]To some degree the film also explores the general culture of the 1960s and 70s, specifically its experimentation and lack of concern for boundaries. But happily the film never for a second devolves into pat psychology. No character says things like, "You have no boundaries!" These characters, like most human beings, are completely buried in the subconscious and have no vantage point from which to conduct a self-analysis. The film doesn't try to provide this vantage point either. It just stands back and watches them go through their dramas. [/size]
[size=3]There is immense food for thought for the audience. But "Savage Grace" doesn't take the lead in any particular analytical direction. The film simply depicts the characters' experiences, and the audience is on its own to form a critique.[/size]
[size=3]At the screening I attended, director [b]Tom Kalin[/b] was in attendance. (Artistic theaters in Manhattan are outdoing themselves lately with in-theater visits from filmmakers. Every time I turn around another theater is advertising, "Meet the Filmmaker at the 8pm Show." I couldn't be more delighted.) [/size]
[size=3]Kalin said that he was opposed to the idea of films making judgments, but he made clear that he made his own judgments, as a viewer of the film, if you will. It's always dangerous to paraphrase, but I think it's safe to say that Kalin finds the characters in "Savage Grace" immensely interesting but also horrendously disgusting. I would concur.[/size]
[size=3]If the first two-thirds of the film were edited more sharply, I think "Savage Grace" would be getting more attention. Despite the powerhouse ending, I think most people walking out of the film have a hard time shaking the memory of 60 minutes of slackness. It's a shame, because there is an immense amount of artistry here.
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