Ordinary People

1980, Movie, R, 124 mins


Robert Redford chose to adapt Judith Guest's novel as his first directorial effort, with impressive results. Timothy Hutton (son of actor Jim Hutton) also debuts here, as Conrad, a potentially suicidal teen who is consumed with guilt over the drowning death of his brother (Doebler), compounded by the resentment his mother (Moore, in an astounding performance that made a dramatic departure from her clean-cut image) directs at him for having survived. As tensions mount, Conrad's father (Sutherland) becomes increasingly distanced from his wife and depressed by his inability to communicate with, let alone restore, his family. After a friend (Manoff) kills herself, Conrad is able to achieve a breakthrough with his psychiatrist (Hirsch), deciding he wants to live.

Although the story is admittedly slight, Redford demonstrates a tremendous understanding of his subjects, wealthy white suburbanites who struggle to conceal the rage and fear that eats away at them. His quiet, gentle direction is epitomized in memorably painful moments, such as the famous photo scene, when the squelched feelings threaten to explode. Several times, the film escapes easy resolutions, hanging on difficult moments longer than expected and refusing to slide into artificial closure. The script, which has the difficult task of illustrating the inner lives of essentially inarticulate people, is strongest in its characterization of the mother, whose own misery is withheld until Moore's heart-breaking final sequence (her own son died around the time of this production).

Redford was rewarded, not only with critical praise and a huge box-office hit, but with a surprising slew of Oscars, including Best Picture (beating out the infinitely more deserving RAGING BULL). Nonetheless, it would be eight years before he would direct again (THE MILAGRO BEANFIELD WAR), and he has yet to equal the sure touch and depth of insight shown in this film (with the possible exception of QUIZ SHOW, which is better directed but less emotionally resonant). leave a comment

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