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Hal Hinson - Style section,
'Before and After'
At the beginning of Barbet Schroeder's taut domestic thriller "Before and After,"
all is well with the Ryan family. The father, Ben, is a successful artist; the
mother, Carolyn, a pediatrician. Sure, there are the usual squabbles between
siblings -- Jacob, 16, and his younger sister, Judith -- but basically they are a solid,
middle-class American family. The next minute, the sheriff is standing in their
kitchen asking to see Jacob. A teenage girl has been found brutally murdered; she was
last seen with Jacob, who brought the car he was driving back home and hasn't been
spotted since. From this moment on, nothing is the same. -- Hal Hinson
'Before and After': A Family Untied
By Hal Hinson
At the beginning of Barbet Schroeder's taut domestic thriller "Before and After," all is well with the Ryan family. The father, Ben (Liam Neeson), is a successful artist; the mother, Carolyn (Meryl Streep), a pediatrician. Sure, there are the usual squabbles between siblings—Jacob (Edward Furlong), 16, and his younger sister, Judith (Julia Weldon)—but basically they are a solid, middle-class American family. The next minute, the sheriff is standing in their kitchen asking to see Jacob. A teenage girl has been found brutally murdered; she was last seen with Jacob, who brought the car he was driving back home and hasn't been spotted since. From this moment on, nothing is the same.
The crisis that screenwriter Ted Tally ("The Silence of the Lambs") and director Schroeder ("Barfly" and "Single White Female") have set up forces the Ryans to examine precisely who they are as a family. It's a test of moral character, and, beyond that, a cautionary parable about the arbitrary nature of catastrophe. In "Before and After," the line between security and disaster is a shaky tightrope, and, almost by reflex, Ben leads the way, demanding that the sheriff secure a search warrant before examining Jacob's car.
Carolyn, on the other hand, knows instinctively that her son is no murderer. She's afraid that he might have been killed as well, or that he's been kidnapped. She wants the car examined for clues that might help them locate the missing boy. Their clash of strategies sets the stage for everything that follows: Ben wants to play it safe and use the law to protect his son. (Their lawyer, played by Alfred Molina, is naturally on his side.) Carolyn wants to tell the truth, especially after Jacob returns to give his version of the events. Only by honestly laying out all the facts can Jacob—and the family as a whole—be saved.
To give away any more of the plot would spoil the mystery. As a thriller, "Before and After" has real tension, real suspense. Ultimately, though, the movie is more instructional than enjoyable. The deeper Schroeder takes us into his story, the more the movie seems like an old Stanley Kramer "issue" drama, or an after-school special. Earlier on, the conflicts appear more human and universal. Ben, as it turns out, is a volatile, unpredictable man, and Neeson brings out the bully lurking beneath the artist's surface.
As Carolyn, Streep gives a watchful, sharp performance. She spends most of her on-screen time weighing her options (it's primarily a reactive role), but along the way she makes beautifully detailed choices, little things that keep the character grounded in reality and illuminate the careful process of her thinking. The real stars of the production, though, are the kids. As Jacob, Furlong has a poetic, melancholy beauty that seems almost too exotic for this all-American setting. But since his debut in "Terminator 2" he has grown into a sensitive, expressive young actor, and the feelings of devastation he conveys here help lend the film some real gravity.
As Judith, Weldon has the unfortunate role of the truth-teller. She's the innocent child who reminds the adults of their duty to be upstanding and honest. And Weldon invests her character's message with such urgency that her performance rises above the writer's shallow rhetoric. The production as a whole is not so fortunate.
In the past, Schroeder has set up an interesting premise only to botch it in the execution, and that's precisely what he has done here. "Before and After" doesn't build toward its ultimate resolution, it simply unwinds. And while the filmmakers can be praised for not caving in to the pressure for a happy ending, they can also be criticized for just letting their story peter away into easy ambiguity.
Before and After is rated PG-13.