DVD Review: Savage Grace (2008)

The Independent Spirit Award
Nominated Film

Arrives on DVD

Read the Book


"I'll give you all I've got to give
If you say you love me too
I may not have a lot to give
But what I've got I'll give to you
I don't care too much for money
For money can't buy me love."
-- The Beatles, "Can't Buy Me Love"

The thing about the Bakelands is that they knew damn well that money couldn't buy them love from others but did everything within their power to buy themselves enough to make them love themselves. And to this end they succeeded brilliantly... at least for awhile whether it was in the form of fancy parties, gorgeous couture, expensive jewelry, lessons in the fine arts, languages and ultimately in the form of travel from one country to the next when they inevitably wore out their welcome nearly as quickly as they arrived.

"Known everywhere, [and] loved nowhere," as Roger Ebert wrote, the tragic tale of the Bakeland dynasty, with money being inherited down three generations from their Bakelite plastics empire which was "used in everything from cooking utensils to nuclear bombs," provides incredibly provocative, kinky, and overwhelmingly tragic storytelling fodder for director Tom Kalin and screenwriter Howard A. Rodman (working from Natalie Robins and Stephen M.L. Aron's award-winning book of the same name).

Alternately as plastic as Bakelite utensils themselves and as radioactive as their deadly weapons, in a behind-the-scenes featurette, Kalin discusses his decision to break down the enormous source material into five distinct "days" serving as near chapters for his Greek tragedy construct as he moves from what he considered to be the "key turning points in the story" as it spans several decades.

Beginning in post World War II New York, its initial conflict seems to fixate on the tense marriage between Brooks Bakeland (Stephen Dillane) and Barbara Daly (Julianne Moore) as in the opening scene she manages to wheel and deal her way into putting together an extravagant guest list for a dinner in a classy restaurant and uses her same smooth feminine wiles and titular savage grace to bend everyone (including her husband) to her will. While they parade around elegantly attired, their manners crumble over dinner when Barbara begins asking salacious questions of their guests. Barbara-- a woman who aspired to socially climb with the best of them yet managed to push everyone away with her tenacity and lack of tact-- a switch seems to flip in Barbara at any given moment from the height of external sophistication and poise to narcissistic confrontation and hedonism without any warning.

The problems within the marriage and in both Brooks and Barbara who seem a bit thinly drawn in the ninety-eight minute running time only escalate as Kalin moves locations and time periods and leads us into their world from the point-of-view of their son and the film's narrator, Tony (Eddie Redmayne). Although forced out into the world and able to effortlessly grasp languages and societal rhythms in Paris, Spain and London, the contradictorily fragile and sheltered son forms a creepily close bond with his mother Barbara that moves from simple over-coddling to eventually incest as he ages into a homosexual and both find themselves sharing her most loyal "walker" Sam (Hugh Dancy).

With Tony's father out of the picture after he manages to seduce a young Spanish beauty that Tony has brought home in the '60s, Barbara and Tony grow increasingly needy and codependent in a relationship that feels even more sinister than the ones penned by Tennessee Williams at his most provocative and indeed at times, the film's self-consciously flowery and honey-tinged dialogue seems as though it were trying to weave gold from the dirt in the manner of Williams (especially Suddenly Last Summer and The Glass Menagerie), Albert Camus' absurdist morality tale The Stranger, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, the Greek tragedies of Sophocles, and the films of Douglas Sirk which were used to stunning effect for both Grace actress Moore and its producers on the far superior Far From Heaven.

An uneasy and extremely disturbing exploration of "what humans are to one another" and "how attached and detached" they can be at the same time as Dillane notes in a DVD extra-- while the actors are all uniformly excellent, Kalin's direction is solid and the film is almost the most unsettling in how gorgeous it looks with the combination of set, costume, lighting, cinematography, and production design despite the horrific goings on. Yet ultimately it's far too cold in its execution to earn anything more than just startled fascination.

In addressing the key turning points as Kalin aspired-- he and his writer Howard A. Rodman nonetheless failed to flesh out the characters in a way that even begins to foreshadow Tony's underlying violent tendencies or schizophrenia (although the symptoms of mental illness seem prevalent in his parents) and we're never completely sure what the thesis of the film is aside from wanting to craft a visually beautiful yet incredibly haunting tragedy of the bold and beautiful and/or rich and famous.

Always riveted by fact based pieces such as Capote's In Cold Blood as he notes in the IFC Channel Special extra on the stunning DVD transfer from The Weinstein Company, Genius Entertainment, and IFC Films, with Savage Grace, director Tom Kalin releases his first film in fifteen years after his critically acclaimed feature Swoon, which chronicled the thrill-killers Leopold and Loeb formerly made famous in Alfred Hitchcock's fictional Rope.

And while he's an undeniable talent who seems to have a great eye for exploring American scandal and Grace is an impressively well-made feature that will inevitably get you thinking, it's much more surface-level in its approach. For, without enough depth below the surface as he builds and builds a tale of an empire except instead of a brick foundation, it tumbles down like a house of cards. Ultimately, we're given an arduous third act with a rushed conclusion and not enough psychological exploration of the three Bakelands to evoke much more than pity, a terrible unsettled feeling, and fascination of the way that money can't even buy three such shallow people anything close to love-- not from others-- but from themselves.