Late last night while battling insomnia I stumbled up the free on demand movies and found a disturbing little title from last year. It was the Savage Grace, a bracing film from early last year about the rich and entitled Baekeland family. A family who made millions in the cosmetics world, and set about destroying themselves. It's a small film, one that made barely a blip in box office (it stalled at about $400,000, but thanks to cable companies maybe can recoup slightly. The film isn't great and earth shattering, it works best a travelogue and an amazing star vehicle for the luminous Julianne Moore. She stars as Barbara Baekeland, a woman who married money and lived a life of depraved privilege. It's a great dame role, and easily the strongest performance this esteemed actress has bequeathed to salivating fans since her banner year in 2002 (where Far From Heaven and to a lesser extent The Hours haunted my humble brain.) And for that, I rejoice!
The reason the film works at all is because Moore gets to play such a tragic nut job, reminding me and the half dozen other people who viewed it how miraclous she can be in a role worthy of her singular strenghts. She's a ballsy actress, and Barbara is a jaded women with huge balls. She gets to act dirty and naughty, seemingly reveling it, while silently shading her discpicible women with just enough refined humanity to tease that a real, vulnerable is desperately hiding beneath her designer clothes. It's been a long time since the great Moore has had a character to truly sink her teeth into, and release mad gushes of crazed emotion. The wonderful thing about it, is that in Moore's hands it feels totally authentic, no matter how you view her character, which is a fairly dreadful one.
The film explores the twisted relationships between Barbara, her vacant husband Brooks (The Hours' Stephen Dilliane, always good even in bit parts like here), and her son Tony (Eddie Redmayne), and demonstrates Moore's favorite stock role as the terrible mother (think about: The Forgotten, Far From Heaven, The Hours, The Prize Winner of Defiance Ohio, World Traveler, Freedomland, even Boogie Nights, this woman has a penchant for playing some of the most deplorable mothers in screen history-- caution to any further young actors thwarted to playing Moore's children.) Savage Grace, directed by Tom Kalin, who had a big breathrough with the queer hit Swoon in the mid-90s, shows the episodic evolvement (or devolvement) of these three characters over a 20-year period, which consisting mostly (as from I can gather) moving around to every beautiful part of the world. It's a randy film (easily Moore's mostly sexually charged role since the wee days of Amber Waves) as well as a beautifully photographed one, but mostly a distrubing one-- as the boundaries between mother and son (who has his own warped, bi-curious takes on sexuality), become tighter and tighter, there's even a threesome between mother, son, and mutual boyfriend Sam (Hugh Dancy). Savage Grace as a film is a bit thin, even with it's real-life tale of a the damaged rich, but perhaps that was intentional as none of the characters are ever completely honest for a second.
The revelatory thing for me is the return of Moore, and she is positively electrifying, reminding me of what a gutsy, outsider actress she is. For she is the muse of both Todd Haynes (their union in Safe and Far From Heaven is pure movie heaven) and Paul Thomas Anderson (she was the juiciest in both Boogie Nights and Magnolia in my humble opinion.) She had the hutzpah to deliver a full on monolouge bottomless in Robert Altman's Short Cuts and make it the most awkwardly true part of a riveting film with 50 million great actors. Her brief performance in Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men bounced to film to a scarily alive, anything will happen place. She made the most of her most successful stab at comedy in The Coen's The Big Lebowski, oh Maude. She's an actress for the ages, best at portraying conflicted women (with various views of morality) living on the fringe, which is where her most incredible performance come from.
Hollywood, in its weird packaging ways, has tried to tame her raven haired rouser to more earth bound genre work like romanctic comedy (Nine Months, Laws of Attraction) and thriller (Freedomland, Next, The Forgotten), but she can't be tamed, and shouldn't be tamed. And it's been a sad couple of years for restless Moore fans, ready for another indelible performance from one the best screen actors of all time. For instance, there's a airport scene in Savage Grace where Barbara scolds her husbands with such reckless abandon, screaming the word "cunt" to the top of her lungs, reminscient of that great go-for-broke scene in Magnolia at the drug store...she can't be tamed, the cinema would be far to boring for that.
Savage Grace B
Julianne Moore A- (welcome back)