Directed by Tom Kalin. Starring Julianne Moore, Stephen Dillane, Eddie Redmayne, Hugh Dancy, Barney Clark, Elena Anaya. (2008, NR, 97 min.)
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., July 18, 2008
You can almost smell the desperation in the twisted psychosexuality of Savage Grace, the film purportedly based on the true story of a mother-son relationship that went tragically wrong. Equal parts socialite and sociopath, the one-time middle-class Barbara Daly (Moore) loves living the life of the idle rich. Unfortunately, she can’t seem to reconcile her need to maintain this lifestyle with the thing that makes it all possible, her crumbling marriage to the handsome heir to the Bakelite plastics fortune, Brooks Baekeland (Dillane). More unfortunately, their only child, Tony (Redmayne), is caught in the middle of his parents’ marital tensions. Gradually, the co-dependent bond between mother and son develops into something Oedipal, most markedly after Brooks deserts his family and Barbara needs a surrogate husband to fill the void. To complicate things, Tony has gravitated toward same-sex relationships as he matures into adulthood, much to the cool chagrin of his jealous mother. The long-awaited return to filmmaking for Queer Wave director Kalin (Swoon), the disappointing Savage Grace is a movie that badly wants to shock you. The only thing that might raise an eyebrow here, however, is the shocking rate at which everyone lights up a cigarette every five minutes. (And was it really de rigueur for someone from the privileged class in the Fifties and Sixties to hold a cigarette at a languid 45-degree angle between puffs?) The screenplay by Howard A. Rodman is purposely elliptical, depicting the disintegration of the relationships that form the film’s sordid familial triangle, at various jet-set locations over a period of two decades. Granted, imagining what has transpired offscreen between these junctures is intriguing, but Savage Grace supplies little emotional or psychological motivation to its characters beyond the textbook. Moore seems stumped in her performance as the manipulative but unstable Barbara; you get the impression she’s grappling to make some sense of a situation that seemingly defies rational explanation. Like other movie mommies who look to their sons for more than a hug (Jill Clayburgh in Luna, Isabelle Huppert in Ma Mère), her character borders on half-baked parody, although the film’s dispassionate distance deprives you of even the pleasure of making fun of it all. Redmayne struggles even more in the role of the older Tony; he’s as bewildered as you are by the whole thing. If you’re perversely aching for a movie with similar themes but one that succeeds in ways that few in the subgenre have, then rent something that is truly shocking in this regard, the superb 1991 film based on Jim Thompson’s pulp fiction novel, The Grifters. One thing’s guaranteed: When Anjelica Huston’s conniving Lilly comes on to her estranged son in that film’s pivotal scene, your views on motherhood will never be the same.