There are bad choices made by characters in films that infuriate the audience, as nobody can understand why the people on screen would have any reason to do what they are doing. There are also bad choices made by characters which can be instantly understood, as they're the kind of unintelligent behavior which pretty much all those watching can understand doing themselves, given the situation. And since the lamentable choice made by Stanley Phillips (John Cusack
) early on in Grace is Gone comes not long after he has discovered that his wife has been killed while serving in Iraq, it would be the rare viewer who wouldn't understand at least some part of why he did it.
Stanley's problem is that the news of Grace's death -- delivered solemnly on a beautiful day by a pair of soldiers who seem carved from headstone granite -- leaves him not only without a wife, but also as the sole provider for a pair of daughters: 12-year-old Heidi and 8-year-old Dawn (played with radiant smarts by, respectively, Shelan O'Keefe
and Grace Bednarczyk
). So, faced with the horrible news and unsure of when and how to break it to the girls, Stanley hides. A stolid manager at a Home Depot-style store in their quiet Midwestern town, Stanley is the embodiment of dull routine, making it all the more exciting for the girls when he tells them that they're taking off and heading for Enchanted Gardens, a Disneyworld-type theme park where Dawn has always wanted to go. Maybe that will be the right place to tell them, he figures. It's a horrendously bad plan, but given the quiet normalcy of the day and the massive tragedy which Stanley is suddenly tasked with landing on his daughters, it's not shocking at all that he would disappear into a fantasy of sorts, where maybe Grace hasn't died. So off they drive in the SUV with the yellow ribbon magnet on the back, girls curious but thrilled at the sudden adventure, father gripping the wheel tightly while anguish eats him alive from the inside. Article continues below
In his script for Lonesome Jim, James C. Strouse
showed that he had a knack for delivering a certain kind of Midwestern pathos that's understated almost to the point of invisibility. Here, in his writing/directing debut, Strouse hones that talent even more precisely, with Cusack the near-perfect instrument. The six-foot-three Cusack's size hasn't before seemed so apparent, as he's so often been the comedic or romantic lead, but Strouse uses his lead's bulk here as a weight, vividly reinforcing his grounded, suburban-dad nature. In the film's funny opening scene -- one of a few lightly comic moments that Strouse successfully dashes throughout while never mitigating its seriousness -- Stanley finds himself at a soldiers' spouse support group, as of course the only man. As the women rhapsodize about the romance of their last nights with their men, a visibly squirmy Stanley can only recall that they put the kids to bed and watched Leno; anything else is strictly off-limits.
Stanley's stoic heartland nature extends to his politics, a refreshing choice by Strouse, who could easily have used the film more bluntly either as a tool to hammer an anti-war message, or simply ignored it altogether. But while the film refuses to judge Stanley for his relentlessly pro-war beliefs, it nevertheless brings the issue to a head in a few sharp exchanges between Stanley and his slacker brother John (wonderfully played by the underrated Alessandro Nivola
). The two spout impotent clichés at each other while the girls look on in confusion.
Grace is Gone is a muted and sad piece of work, occasionally dipping so far into its low-key unobtrusiveness that it almost fades from sight to the plaintive strings of Clint Eastwood's delicate score (no, really). There's an undeniable integrity here, though, with the powerfully sympathetic Cusack leading a clutch of standout performances through an honest and fair appreciation of death and the gaping holes of its aftermath. Given its light touch, Grace is Gone fades from the mind rather too quickly, though, quite unlike the memory of a wife Stanley is fleeing from.