In The Reckless Moment (1949), a great old Hollywood melodrama by Max Ophüls, the life of a family completely unravels when a caring mother tries to help her wayward daughter out of a jam. Virtually overnight, these characters journey from banal domesticity to an underworld of murder, deception and hitherto unspoken desire.
Barbet Schroeder (Reversal of Fortune , Maîtresse ) is another filmmaker drawn to such upheavals. The narration by young Judith (Julia Weldon) which begins Before and After warns us – over generic shots of a wintry suburbia – that an unexpected event can instantly alter one's station in life. And that's exactly what happens to the Ryan family when Judith's teenage brother Jacob (Edward Furlong) is suspected of murdering his girlfriend.
The conjunction of death, small town Americana and secretive teenage sex immediately evokes the memory of Twin Peaks. This association proves to be distracting: I kept anticipating, right to the final scene, dark and demonic revelations about the proclivities of all the characters.
But in fact Before and After is much more of a morality play than a mystery-thriller. The plot has few ambiguities; the stake in this drama is the different relation that each character entertains to the prospect of telling the truth. Ben (Liam Neeson) covers up his son's tracks and fabricates stories from the word go – and the fast-talking lawyer Panos (Alfred Molina) is happy to collaborate in this mystification.
Carolyn (Meryl Streep) is, by contrast, the self-appointed moral centre of the family – although righteous demonstrations of virtue, as we know from many a Luis Buñuel film, often just compound the problems of daily life. And the enigmatic Jacob, at the centre of this maelstrom, is for the most part sullen, unable to respond to anyone's efforts on his behalf.
All the elements are lined up here for a typically splendid Barbet Schroeder film: an almost Behaviourist view of people as confused, moral vacuums; a dry reflection on social institutions such as the law; an ironic drama of downward mobility, as the Jacobs inevitability lose their standing in the local community. But, despite his customary control and discretion in handling the material, this is one of Schroeder's least captivating efforts.
Attempts at injecting a feel-good optimism into this story – as if it were an upbeat remake of Ordinary People (1980) – are very forced. The script by Ted Tally (The Silence of the Lambs, 1991) rides shakily over strange ellipses, and the dialogue is riddled with overstated banalities.
Above all, the film seems never to find a dramatic urgency, or zero in on a thematic core. It simply cruises along, unpowered by any of the reckless moments in the past or present tense of its narrative.
© Adrian Martin April 1996