Career Highlight for Cusack in “Grace Is Gone”

PG-13, 84 minutes, The Weinstein Company

Throughout the entire winter season for cinema in 2007, (which happened to be a mighty fantastic one!) the James C. Strouse film, Grace Is Gone, was always in my top five most anticipated. The performance by John Cusack, in which he plays a father of two girls who learns of his wife’s death in Iraq and must find a way to break the news to them, garnered a nice little bit of attention in the fall with even some talk of a possible first-time Oscar nomination for the tremendous actor. That buzz, coupled with the fact that it received both the Waldo Salt Screenwriting and Audience Award’s at Sundance a few months earlier, made me think that it would easily find its way across at least Arts theaters in the US. Sadly, that never happened. It received about as limited of a run as a movie with a solid lead actor and award talk could get, never opening anywhere near here and ultimately totaling box-office numbers that were hard-pressed to topple $50,000. To add to the pain of waiting, the video release was rather long compared to most of the swift-paced rush to shelves for most films nowadays, with about six months of time from theater to DVD player. Nevertheless, on May 27th I finally had no more reason to nag and complain, for Grace Is Gone was here. It is a film, and in particular a performance, that I will never forget.

Cusack plays Stanley Phillips, a middle-aged man whose face blatantly shows a dissatisfaction with himself, some disappointment because he is not the family member who is strapped up in military gear and fighting in Iraq. Due to limitations in his eyesight, Stanley was denied from serving at a very early age. But his wife, Grace, with whom he married after meeting in the military continues to serve, which leaves Stanley at not only a feeling of guilt but in the position of raising not only two children, but two girls, and by himself. There is no questioning the love he has for his family, it’s just the level of confidence he lacks in himself that’s what stopping him from handling the regular parenting things the way he could. Each day that Grace is absent from their lives is another day the girls grow older, and it becomes more difficult for Stanley to get a grasp on the entire situation. But he is doing his best, which is all he can hope to do until she comes back. When he is approached at his doorstep by two men who inform him of his wife’s death in battle, Stanley enters an understandable state of shock. When his children come home he attempts to find the right way to tell them, but instead reverts to spontaneous propositions that they’re not accustomed to seeing from him, in particular asking if they want to take a sudden road trip to a popular amusement park, Enchanted Gardens. There are devastating emotions in the most subtle of facial expressions as his mind races faster and faster, through countless ways to find it in himself to let his children know that their mother is gone.

The road trip itself is like a coming-of-age-quickly excursion for Stanley and a chance, albeit under the most unfortunate of circumstances, to come closer to his girls, especially with his oldest, Heidi, played by Shelan O’Keefe in one of the best adolescent performances in recent memory. Strouse has created a simple and straight-forward screenplay that is very good, but in finding the right lead actor it becomes memorable and near fantastic. This is one of those movies that can find a level ground with everyone who views it, even those who disagree about the many directions and actions American government have taken on the war, because it doesn’t act like it has answers for anything. Strouse chooses to simply tell the story of how it all affects our regular families and those who extend from there on out. Cusack digs deep as Stanley, creating a character that can certainly be added among the most impressive in a career filled with outstanding performances. There are moments in this film, especially near the finale that will stay with you forever if you have any sort of feelings inside. Clint Eastwood was so impressed by an early cut of the film, that he agreed to do the score for it, which turned out to be a wonderful companion piece. Stanley was prevented from serving in the military and thus destroying his aspirations of becoming an identifiable American hero, but he still has time to realize that he can be a good, caring father, which in the eye’s of two children can be seen as heroic as anything anyone’s ever done on a battlefield.

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