Reel Matt

This blog started as my movie marathon — watching a movie a day for a whole year — and has continued as a place for me to write reviews about movies, TV, and various other items.



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Ordinary People

Film #251


The accidental death of the older son of an affluent family deeply strains the relationships among the bitter mother, the good-natured father, and the guilt-ridden younger son.

Year 1, Day 250

BEFORE: Originally my plan was to have my last double-feature today with a Donald Sutherland combo, but given that spring break is almost over and I do have this thing called homework to do, I thought it best to cut back down to just a movie per day. Ordinary People, starring the aforementioned Donald Sutherland, was initially scheduled for Oscar month as it won four out of its six nominations including Best Picture and Best Director.

AFTER: There seems to be an unintended theme that has popped up in the last few films, most notably in today’s Ordinary People and Terms of Endearment but also some signs of it in The Notebook. That theme is taking a look at “ordinary people”: what is life actually like instead of a made-up Hollywood story. Obviously this doesn’t hold up for every aspect of each of these films but the idea is there and I think it’s an interesting one - can a film still be interesting without a lot of fluff?

Ordinary People makes a strong argument that you can do just that. While the Jarrett family isn’t the most average American family you’ll find (just look at that house) but the interactions between the characters shines an interesting light on our behaviors. Conrad (Timothy Hutton) is a teenage boy who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and attempted suicide. Much of the film focuses on his struggles to come to terms with the guilt he assumes for the death of his older brother Buck (Scott Doebler). Through the terrific performance by Hutton and the equally impressive writing by Alvin Sargent, you really see the pain Conrad feels but forces himself to hide. It’s like a war is raging on inside him and he does his best to control it, but as he attends sessions with his psychiatrist Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch), Conrad begins to think about his feelings and why he feels the way he does. The transformation he goes through is a difficult and emotional one for him and reminds me in some ways of the transformation Will Hunting (Matt Damon) goes through in Good Will Hunting.

Speaking of struggles, something I’ve been going back and forth about while writing this review is my thoughts about Conrad’s mother, Beth (Mary Tyler Moore). What I know is that Moore does a spot-on job of playing the character that’s written: a self-serving and careless person. She doesn’t love her husband (Donald Sutherland) or her remaining son Conrad. The only person she ever loved is her deceased son, her first-born Buck. Now that he’s gone she’s like a soulless bag of meat caring only about her well-being. That’s the character that’s written and that’s the character Mary Tyler Moore plays with great accuracy. It’s another character you love to hate; there’s just nothing to like about her. Where my problem lies is whether or not I like the idea of this self-centered mother for this story. Especially after such a traumatic incident like the loss of your son, it’s reasonable to expect the mother to suffer her own stresses just as Conrad does. But to not be capable of change and continue on not caring for her husband and second child seems to me a bit far-fetched. There is a little bit of ambiguity at the end of whether or not Beth does indeed change her ways, but for the most part, that her entire character just doesn’t fit in with the story of Ordinary People.

As a whole, I think Robert Redford (probably best known for his role as the Sundance Kid) did a terrific job in his directorial debut. It’s a powerful story about human emotions and feelings after a traumatic event and with terrific acting by the entire cast and a wonderful story, there’s a lot to like. Even with the problem of Beth’s character, Ordinary People is a movie you should get around to seeing at some point.

RATING: 4 out of 5