The drug of romance and its rotten hangover are nothing new to stage, screen and stereo. You've got your Capulets and Montagues, your Griffin and Phoenix, your Ike and Tina -- cautionary tales the lot. Yet it doesn't matter how well you prepare yourself, how many amulets you wear and mantras you chant; love will circle overhead until you collapse in the desert, and love will gouge out and swoop away with your vitals. You'll rise and stagger forth alone, half-slain, stopping your gaping holes with sand, and you'll search for that elusive beast that robbed you of yourself. (If you haven't already given this a whirl, a parched path probably awaits. Happy trails!)
The reason Keith Gordon's new film Waking the Dead is so beautiful and satisfying is that it takes no shortcuts through the aforementioned wasteland. Based on the novel by Scott Spencer (which Gordon defended from Hollywood's "odd habit of taking wonderful books and throwing out things like the characters, the plot, and the ending"), the movie is at once a romance, a mystery, a political drama and a subtle ghost story. Most notably, it robustly broaches a theme seldom explored in mainstream film, that of a young man's quest to regain his spiritual integrity in the wake of a soul mate's passing. Several drafts and nearly a decade after its initial development, the project arrives on the big screen with a strength and subtlety almost nonexistent in movies rushed off the film factories' assembly lines. Only the most glacial hearts may resist being melted and moved.
"You can't be everything to me," tenderly explains Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connelly) to her smoldering beau, Fielding Pierce (Billy Crudup). When he devoutly replies that, indeed, he does want to be everything, she nearly acquiesces: "Oh, dear ... I love that you said that." Not only is the moment ideal for peering into this relationship, it leads directly to some of the most wonderfully wrenching eroticism glimpsed in the cinema in many a season. The tears that pour forth feel no more like actors' tears than the ones Fielding weeps in the opening sequence, set in 1974, when he gapes in disbelief at the television, which tells him his love is presumed dead in a car bombing.
Flash back to 1972, to the groovy New York (Montreal) publishing office of Fielding's hippie brother Danny (Paul Hipp), where Fielding, fresh out of the Coast Guard, is smitten by the earthy Sarah. After blathering about himself through lunch, he asks her to dinner, which she accepts on the promise that she'll be allowed to talk. Thus the romance begins, with Fielding's ungrounded ambition balancing Sarah's unbridled activism, opposites attracting with a magical magnetism. Bold and noble in their naïveté, each wants a life that makes sense, even though she feels she could disappear at any moment and his future is obviously preordained.
Zoom ahead 10 years, to snowy Chicago (Montreal), where political mentor Isaac Green (Hal Holbrook) states his intention of grooming District Attorney Fielding Pierce to run for Congress, a gesture endorsed by Gov. Kinosis (Lawrence Dane). Fielding is game for the promotion, and Green is savvy enough to make it work. The problem is that Sarah has begun to reappear on Fielding's periphery, disrupting his concentration, as well as his relationship with Juliet Beck (Molly Parker), who happens to be Green's niece. "Can I just say something," Fielding sheepishly asks his stodgy father (Stanley Anderson), "and we'll never have to talk about it again?" His father agrees, and the son tries to explain his emotional thrall, but the receptive ears of family and friends prove inadequate to break Sarah's spell. She haunts Fielding in the snow, in his heart, in his coldly lit bed with Juliet. As his political aspirations are slowly manifested, his emotional stability gradually disintegrates.
With this established, Waking the Dead charts the evolution of 10 years, both for Fielding and for America (the hippie brother becomes a whoring junkie), nimbly juxtaposing painfully vibrant memories of the '70s with the tightened regimen of the '80s (David Byrne and Brian Eno's manic "Help Me Somebody" sets the pace). In this sense, it's a coming-of-age movie, but the editing (by Jeff Wishengrad) is so fluid that it feels all of a piece, with Sarah -- sometimes spectral, sometimes hotly tangible -- weaving in and out of the life of both the younger and elder Fielding. It's complex and assured work, especially given how close to maudlin the director dares to venture (with Peter Gabriel's "Mercy Street" held up almost as a shield). Also, as Sarah's lefty politics clash with Fielding's increasingly conservative machinations, her earth-mother yin and his spit-and-polish yang could have dissolved into gross caricature. Thanks to the profound investment of Connelly and Crudup (reteamed here after their pairing in Inventing the Abbotts), the lovers breathe, ache and wrestle plausibly. Waking the Dead is a pensive, reflective movie, more or less equal in tone to Ang Lee's The Ice Storm (substitute Qawwali singing for gamelan music; keep the snow), yet, as a result of its temporal breadth and tight emotional focus, it packs a more intimate punch. At a celebration in Washington, D.C. (Montreal), late in the film, Fielding's fatigue and visions lead to a fit in which he shouts that he doesn't want pity or generosity, he wants help to see himself. The scene makes a strong case for the overlooked and largely denied complexity of the masculine psyche. Without the mirror and beacon of the feminine, it loses its way. Corralled by yes-men and aching for the glow he once knew with Sarah, Fielding's challenge is to discover that wholeness within. In this role, Crudup takes over as Sensitive Male where William Hurt and Claude Rains left off.
Sarah's aura is vital to this struggle, and Connelly delivers the immense passion of a young woman who wants to give her all to her man but knows she simply cannot; she has another missionary position to fulfill. The role affords an intriguing opportunity to assess the feminine zeitgeist of three decades. The voice of Joni Mitchell, occasionally catty but undeniably intelligent and compassionate, complements the rich hues of the '70s. The '80s are evoked here with a hard, loveless bleakness (one imagines early Pat Benatar songs). So what would have happened had this tale been set in the present day? Would the ruthless, retarded persona of a Courtney Love have influenced Sarah? Would Fielding, solid identity or otherwise, have been so deeply touched in the first place? It seems worthy of consideration.
Director Gordon, whose other films include The Chocolate War, A Midnight Clear and Mother Night, offers up much to meditate on here, and it's no surprise, with its theme of spiritual fusion à la the prince in Anna and the King), that Waking the Dead was hatched by Jodie Foster's Egg Pictures. Waking the Dead stands well on its own, without defense, but if the naked emotions here seem rote, or the jaded forget the glow of love (and the agony of its loss), these lines from Sixth Dynasty Chinese poet Shen Yüeh may spark the memory: "I think of when she comes -- shining, shining, up the garden stairs, impatient, impatient to end our parting. Tireless, tireless, we talk of love, gaze at each other but never get our fill, look at one another till hunger is forgotten." Ever been there?
Opens March 24.