Ordinary People

Before and After

area theaters, starts Friday

LIKE PAUL VERHOEVEN and Lasse Hallström, Barbet Schroeder is an expatriate European who makes better American films than most Americans. Born in Tehran and raised in Colombia and France, Schroeder has an amply distanced perspective on our country (and our movies) that helps account for the layered ambivalence in his work. His Hollywood films are unusually experimental: Reversal of Fortune was narrated by a woman in a coma, and withheld judgement on the man accused of trying to kill her; and Kiss of Death was a film noir with three hypersensitive tough guys, one of whose tears apparently weren't from sadness. Similarly conflicted, Schroeder's Before and After is a family melodrama with trace elements of psychosexual horror. In the opening credits, a series of tranquil wintertime tableaux concludes with the image of a dead girl's hand sticking out of the snow. There's darkness beneath that pretty New England facade, and, as in Scorsese's Cape Fear and countless other domestic thrillers, the plot is set in motion by the scary prospect of a teenager's emerging libido.

The teen in question is Jacob (Edward Furlong), who disappears from his hometown in the Berkshires after it's discovered that the dead girl was his former sweetheart. The resulting panic in his family--father Ben (Liam Neeson), mother Carolyn (Meryl Streep), and daughter Judith (Julia Weldon)--is intensified by Schroeder's decision to keep Jacob offscreen for over 40 minutes. During this time, visual clues about the kid's personality--a defiantly unkempt room, a stray condom wrapper, a Nine Inch Nails poster--peg him as the archetypal suburban teen rebel. Nevertheless, when Jacob finally gets his first close-up, the burden of judging his character rests squarely on the viewer. In this scene, Mom and Dad have come to visit their son in a juvenile detention center, only to find him stone cold silent. (Furlong's hooded, stoned-looking eyes are even more incriminating.) Throughout the film, no one in the family quite agrees on Jacob's degree of guilt or what to do about it. Schroeder stages several key scenes at the family dinner table, where all four members are literally shown to have their own sides. In the midst of one dinnertime debate, the kid's surprising confession triggers a stunning flashback that complicates rather than clarifies the plot.

Before and After is a fascinating movie, and far more engrossing than it would have been in most other Hollywood hands. At times it even seems too smart for its own good; as with Verhoeven's films, it will probably suffer, critically or commercially, for its metafictional subtext. But this would be to deny Schroeder's straightforward achievement in fleshing out familial relationships of every combination, and in putting plot at the service of revealing the characters' very different philosophies. For instance, when Neeson's Ben finds a bloody glove in his son's trunk and proceeds to get rid of it, the moment is less about suspense than the sad fact that Dad doesn't really trust his son, and partly for good reason. Ben is the movie's most believably contradictory character: Most of the time, he's a gentle and supportive guy (he even cooks for the family), but he has a violent temper; and as the circumstances of Jacob's court case become more dire, it's clear that he's the most fragile member of all. This slightly oafish househusband certainly aches like a man, but he breaks like a little boy.

This isn't to say that Before and After becomes another tract on the Reinvigorated Dad, at least not exclusively. What's great about the film is how it succeeds in telling the stories of all four family members: Streep's Carolyn fights to restore her cynical maternalism back to loving trust; Ben tries to find dignity after having lost his status as a caregiver; Jacob grows from adolescent rebellion to adult responsibility; and Judith, Jacob's inquisitive younger sister, emerges as the film's toughest character for daring to pose the moral questions that its grown-ups don't (not for nothing does she narrate the story). The director's attention to the emotional nuances of the script, and the ability of his peerless actors to deliver them, is just about unique to the studio-film climate of the '90s.

Honesty just barely wins out in this almost masochistically difficult movie, and only after a complex tallying of its costs and rewards; nothing in Before and After comes cheap. Schroeder even brings a new angle to bear on family values by suggesting that this family's wealth may have helped them over a few of the rough spots. All of which leaves plenty of room to interpret the happy ending from this filmmaker--a self-described "joyous pessimist"--as anything but.

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