Previous war-on-terror dramas this year have fallen short by putting their heads before their hearts. Not "Grace Is Gone."
It's stirring, even gut-wrenching, on the strength of John Cusack's terrifically restrained performance as a husband in denial over the death of his wife in Iraq.
This is a film that provoked a full-on case of the weepies among crowds at its Sundance Film Festival premiere last January, so unless you've had your tear ducts removed, bring along some tissue.
The debut film from writer-director James C. Strouse, "Grace Is Gone" might be shamefully manipulative if not for the naturalistic interplay and awkward empathy Cusack creates with the two young actresses playing his daughters.
After a brief introduction to Cusack's Stanley Phillips, an emotionally bridled dad who works at a home-improvement store, Strouse lobs his grenade. The doorbell rings, and Stanley is confronted by two military men bearing the awful word that wife Grace, an Army sergeant, has been killed in Iraq.
The stern, close-lipped Stanley has trouble enough communicating with his daughters, 12-year-old Heidi (Shelan O'Keefe) and 8-year-old Dawn (Grace Bednarczyk), about school matters at the dinner table.
So faced with the prospect of telling them that their mom's gone, Stanley withers, instead putting on a forced happy face and taking them on an impromptu road trip to an amusement park a few days' drive away.
Heidi senses something's wrong from the outset yet goes along with this sudden lark and ignores the compounding clues that dad's hiding something, her own denial mirroring Stanley's.
The artifice feels strained at times as Stanley drags out his deception to almost irresponsible lengths. Strouse even makes note of that with a stopover at the home of Stanley's mother, where his brother (Alessandro Nivola in a fleeting but enormously effective role) takes his sibling to task for withholding the news from the girls.
Other recent films examining consequences of the war on terror, among them "In the Valley of Elah," "Lions for Lambs" and "Rendition," certainly carried an emotional charge. Yet they failed to win over audiences, dulling sympathies for the characters by trolling about too much in the complexities of the war and how it's waged.
"Grace Is Gone" gushes with emotion and little else, but the feelings are authentic and not overly sentimental. The effects of war are presented at their most basic, bringing home the anguish of family loss with terrible, unbearable rawness.
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Fresh off a far-less-satisfying widower role in "Martian Child," Cusack has made a career out of playing fringe characters with such inscrutable aloofness that you had to wonder if he had the chops to embody an average guy with an everyday life.
Though Stanley is among Cusack's most temperate and internalized characters, he's arguably the most human figure the actor has played and puts him squarely among this year's crop of best-actor contenders at the Academy Awards.
Surprisingly paternal, Cusack forges a big-hearted bond with his two young co-stars, both making their film debuts. O'Keefe is terrific playing essentially a little grown-up, an older daughter forced by the absence of her mother into early, brooding adulthood.
Clint Eastwood, a master of understatement himself in his films and musical compositions, signed on to provide a suitably subdued score.
"Grace Is Gone" won the audience award as favorite film in the U.S. dramatic competition among Sundance festival crowds. The thin mountain air at Sundance can make audiences go goofy over films that fail to resonate in the real world, but this is one that has an excellent chance at bringing the heartbreak of war home to audiences in a big way.
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