‘Grace’ shows the pain of suppressed truth | AspenTimes.com

‘Grace’ shows the pain of suppressed truth

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly

Shelan O'Keefe, John Cusack and Grace Bednarczyk star in James C. Strouse's "Grace Is Gone," showing Sunday, Dec. 23, at Harris Hall in Aspen Film's Academy Screenings series. (Jon Farmer/The Weinstein Company)

James C. Strouse had virtually no background in filmmaking. A writer who had published some short stories, he came into the movie realm with his script “Lonesome Jim,” which Steve Buscemi picked up and directed for a 2005 release. There had been no film school, no commercials or production work. As he says, “I hadn’t shot anything other than my daughter’s first birthday.”

So it is understandable that Strouse didn’t know what he was doing when he embarked on his directorial debut, “Grace Is Gone.” It is not only that Strouse didn’t know cinematographic techniques, or how to work with actors. In a real sense, he didn’t know what kind of film he was making.

Strouse set out to tell an intimate story about a father who has to break a tragic bit of news to his two daughters. On the surface, that is what he did. “Grace Is Gone,” written and directed by the 30-year-old, is an uncomplicated narrative about Stanley Phillips (John Cusack), an already disillusioned man who wakes one day to the telltale doorstep visit from two solemn soldiers. His wife Grace has died in Iraq, and Stanley must tell his daughters ” a complex 12-year-old, Heidi, and a more free-spirited 8-year-old, Dawn ” about the loss. Uttering the news turns out to be a paralyzing task, and the threesome finds themselves on an emotionally fraught and, for Stanley, distracting road trip from their Minnesota home to Florida.

Not until after wrapping the film did Strouse realize the strong metaphoric power of his creation. As Stanley withholds the news, and talk about Grace’s role in the U.S. military comes up, another narrative ” about information and what we do with it ” emerges. And Strouse, who was determined to keep “Grace Is Gone” out of the political arena, raised provocative issues about our current administration.

“I love characters who don’t say what they’re supposed to, and the trouble that causes,” said Strouse, a father of a 3-year-old and a 7-month-old, said by phone from New York, where he has lived for nine years. In “Grace Is Gone,” he said, “everybody is suppressing the truth, everyone is lying to each other. And it causes problems. It keeps causing problems and complicating things. There’s no relief till the truth is told.”

Those could well be critical sentiments aimed at the Bush White House. But Strouse was firm about keeping politically neutral. Stanley, who despite his misguided choices remains a sympathetic character, defends the military, and even its purpose in keeping America safe. Not criticizing American soldiers was one element that survived from Strouse’s initial conception to the final cut, and it took some fortitude on the filmmaker’s part.

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“John Cusack wanted to have the character change more, change his beliefs, be a little more critical,” said the Indiana native, who has family ” aunts, uncles and, briefly, his father ” who served in the military. “I said we couldn’t do that. In writing and researching, talking to families that had gone through this, I hadn’t met one who’s changed their views like that.”

Cusack, however, did manage to put an imprint on the film that Strouse hadn’t foreseen. Strouse envisioned a contradictory personality for Stanley: a “brave coward,” he said, someone who aspired to military service, but couldn’t face up to his daughters. Cusack, in something of a revelatory role, gave him that and more; Stanley is marked as much by his inner rage as by his inaction.

“The character became a lot more angry through the performance,” said Strouse. “John brought a lot of that to it. John saw what was happening to his character, how angry and self-deceptive he was.”

Another aspect of the film that Strouse never imagined at first was the involvement of Clint Eastwood. But Harvey Weinstein, whose company picked up “Grace Is Gone” for distribution, showed the film to Eastwood, who offered to compose a new score and an original song. The score, as well as the title song, with lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager, are both nominated for Golden Globe awards.

The changes from Strouse’s original vision seem to have made the film stronger. “Grace Is Gone” won a pair of honors ” the Audience Award and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award ” at the Sundance Festival. And at its core, it remains the story he began telling ” a character-driven take about loss, self-preservation and decision-making. A viewer is left not with a political commentary, but an emotional look at a character’s delusion and its effects on his family.

“I always saw this guy as someone who imagined himself a hero in some way,” said Strouse of Stanley. “And part of the tragedy is, he’s so far away from his dream. He wanted to be Audie Murphy and here he is, running a department of a home-supply store. He considered himself a leader of men, and look where he ended up.”

“Grace Is Gone” shows Sunday, Dec. 23, at 5:30 p.m. at Harris Hall, in Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings series. Other highlights of the Academy Screenings series this week include: “The Bucket List,” a buddy comedy starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman (Wednesday, Dec. 26, at 5:30 p.m.); Julian Schnabel’s French -language, true-life drama “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (Thursday, Dec. 27, at 5:30 p.m.); “The Savages,” a comic drama starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney (Saturday, Dec. 29, at 5:30 p.m.); and “There Will Be Blood,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel, “Oil” (Saturday, Dec. 29, at 8:15 p.m.). For a full Academy Screenings schedule, go to http://www.aspenfilm.org.

stewart@aspentimes.com