Keith Gordon has again bowled me over with a magnificent piece of filmmaking. "Waking the Dead" shares many of the same elements as his "A Midnight Clear" (still in my view the best WWII drama of modern times) -- a skillful adaptation of a powerful novel, intense performances from the entire cast, and careful attention to the rhythm and pacing of his story. And two other things that are especially rare in today's mainstream movies: the deliberate ambiguity of the ending and nuanced characters that are neither black nor white but multiple shades of grey. Hollywood must hate this, and it must baffle many moviegoers. The general public is force-fed so many lifeless, undemanding, predictable movies with cardboard characters that they probably didn't reward this gem at the box office (Gordon's commentary track implies that this movie was a semi-flop, commercially, which is tragic -- and probably makes it only harder for him to continue to shoot quality films). One hopes "Waking the Dead" will find its audience on home video, much as the well-respected "A Midnight Clear" (which I saw several times in the theatre) seems to have.
Another reviewer has pointed out the double-meaning behind the title -- the "dead" here refers to both Sarah, believed to be physically dead, and Fielding, who has found his soul wasting away since losing her. Can Fielding bring himself as well as Sarah back to life? The story is also tellingly noncommittal as to Sarah's actual status. By the end of the film, we still don't know if Sarah is secretly alive, a ghost from the other side, or simply a product of Fielding's mental breakdown. Everything in the script leaves the question wide open for interpretation, and the effect is both chilling and intensely moving. The emotional wave of the story builds to a final confrontation between the principal characters that is truly heart-rending.
I think this is one of those movies best served by a review that does not give away too many surprises or attempt to detail too much of the plotline. Suffice to say that if you appreciate a human-scale drama that operates on several levels of meaning, you will find yourself drawn in by this one and riveted by the performances of Billy Crudup and Jennifer Connelly. It's a film that only gets richer and more rewarding with every viewing. Looking for a love story/ghost story for grown-ups? "Waking the Dead" is a sure-fire winner.
Some parting notes:
Most directors today hit you over the head with the soundtrack music and then lazily try to let the songs carry the picture. While Gordon is not totally above this contemporary shorthand, he has enough good taste and filmmaking savvy not to let this technique dominate these scenes. And his musical selections are spot-on.
Although Connelly and Crudup are THE key players, the entire cast is outstanding, and deserves a bow.
The DVD extras are generous and revealing. Unlike the deleted scenes from Gordon's "A Midnight Clear," which did seem disposable, I felt all these cut scenes SHOULD have been restored for a "Waking the Dead" Extended Cut. It's sad that they can't be part of the regular narrative; they add a wealth of character development and detail that would have made the theatrical version even richer. Ed Harris, in particular, is deservedly singled out by Gordon's commentary and reviewers here for his exceptional portrayal of a disgraced congressman.
I read the book AFTER I saw the film, being inspired to learn more about this story's genesis. While very fine, I have to say that I still prefer the movie and its more immediate impact. But that's par for the course -- I tend to always prefer the medium in which I was first exposed to something, be it print form or cinematic. I would recommend the novel to anyone who likes the picture. But I note with some bemusement that Fielding seems a much less likable fellow in the book.