Waking the Dead (review)

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Truly, Madly, Deeply

At a time when Hollywood’s idea of romance is a highly contrived “comedy” starring the likes of Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock, or teen sex romps in which love is the furthest thing from the hormone-addled characters’ minds, it’s so wonderfully refreshing to find an intelligent, grown-up, genuine love story. As with the recent and similarly mature End of the Affair, mass audiences will likely decry Waking the Dead as “slow” and probably even “boring,” but anyone who craves a moving and involving romantic movie will love it.

Fielding Pierce (Billy Crudup: Monument Avenue) and Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connelly: Dark City) are as unlikely a couple as you could imagine. In the highly charged political climate of the early 1970s, they seem just about as diametrically opposed as any two people can be. His aspirations to high office — he wants to be president someday — led him to the Coast Guard, his compromise between dodging the draft and ending up in Vietnam. She is a left-wing activist who is kind to junkies on the street and works with the poor. Both of them have only the best intentions, but he means to change the system from inside while she wants to subvert the system entirely.
But Fielding and Sarah share a powerful connection that’s sexual, and beyond sexual, and this keeps them tethered to each other as they move uneasily through each other’s worlds. Crudup and Connelly have some of the most potent chemistry I’ve seen onscreen in a while, and their scenes together are often highly erotically charged, even when Fielding and Sarah are only talking. One striking scene sees them riding home on a Chicago subway train, discussing how wrong they are for each other — she recognizes that they are ultimately doomed, as a couple, even if he doesn’t see it. This happens in one long, uncomfortable, unedited take, and it ends with her admitting that “I really hate loving you sometimes,” and his reply that “the feeling’s mutual.” And yet you know that the minute they get home, they’re not going to be able to keep their hands off each other.

Waking the Dead, though, is Fielding’s story, and Crudup, who’s in practically every scene of the film, is terrific. The story shifts between the early 70s and 1982, when Fielding is running in a special congressional election. We’d learned, in the first few moments of the film, that Sarah was murdered, in 1974, in a terrorist attack that was connected to her work with Chilean rebels. Now, as Fielding is finally realizing his life’s ambition — an ambition, his sister, Caroline (Janet McTeer), notes, that isn’t likely to have come about if Sarah had still been alive — he is suddenly and literally haunted by memories of Sarah. He catches glimpses of her on the street — he hears her voice on the telephone. He feels as if he’s going crazy.

This isn’t a Sixth Sense-type thriller — there are no spooky “I see dead people” chills to be found here. Waking the Dead is more an emotional ghost story, but it’s still eerie and disturbing nonetheless, in a quiet, uneasy way. Director Keith Gordon (who made the underappreciated A Midnight Clear) stays close on his characters’ faces, lending a claustrophobic feeling to the film, especially in the 1982 sequences. But perhaps the most unsettling aspect of Waking the Dead is the fact that it is so intimately about one man’s nervous breakdown. Watching a man crumble emotionally onscreen is not something we see often, and the sheer rawness of Crudup’s performance alone is startling.

The languid pace and unguarded, soulful intimacy of Waking the Dead will frustrate and disquiet many moviegoers, but those qualities are precisely why I love this film so much. Waking the Dead does what good art should: It rattles you, makes you think, and makes you feel.

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