Film Review: Meadowland

Despite some pitfalls, 'Meadowland' is a compelling look at how a married couple handles the disappearance of their young son.
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Grief is a difficult theme to tackle onscreen, emotionally manipulative and often a set-up for actors, writers and directors to strut their stuff. Also, grief is downright unpleasant to watch.

That said, Meadowland, marking cinematographer Reed Morano’s self-assured directorial debut, is a riveting film, handled with nuance (at least for the most part).

The first scene unfolds rapidly as Sarah and Phil (Olivia Wilde and Luke Wilson) drive into a highway gas station where their young son goes to the bathroom and disappears. The parents’ horror and panic is palpable as they desperately search the immediate area and hopelessly run up and down the turnpike, cars streaming by in either direction.

In the next scene, a year has passed and they are hosting a get-together with friends, making every effort to establish the appearance of normalcy, though they still have no idea if their son is alive or dead or what happened to him, adding yet another layer of ambiguity to their grief. Sarah grows increasingly tipsy and can barely restrain her anguish.

From that point on, the film is largely an exploration of how Phil and Sarah respectively deal with their loss. Sarah, an English teacher in a blue-collar New York neighborhood, is the more damaged of the two and most of the story—told through brief, episodic scenes—is hers.

She refuses to believe that her son is dead and will not speak with the detective or look at the pictures he shows the couple of unidentified boys who’ve been killed by a known abductor-pedophile. Meanwhile, she has taken on the role of mom to a troubled youngster (Ty Simpkins) at school who is bullied by the other kids and lives with indifferent, if not abusive, foster parents. At night she wanders around Times Square in a seemingly fugue state, and as she continues to unravel, tiny self-inflicted slash marks appear on her arm.

By contrast, Phil, an outer-borough beat cop, has little doubt his son is dead and joins a support group that does not help him at all. He tries to get advice from another bereft father, Pete (John Leguizamo), who lost his daughter to a hit-and-run driver. Pete can offer no real solace. Still, in an attempt to create a bond with his new pal—and appease his own rage vicariously—Pete unlawfully gives Phil the address of the intoxicated driver who killed his daughter. But Pete’s actions only backfire, as Phil is repelled by the morally corrupt gesture. His frustration and misery further fueled, Phil drives to a roadside shrine of someone who was killed on the spot and destroys it.

The film boasts quite a few revealing and unexpected scenes, thanks to Morano’s tight direction and Chris Rossi’s script that resonates despite the pedestrian events that are depicted. Responding to a noise complaint, Phil visits the home of a battling couple (Juno Temple and Scott Mescudi) whose distaff member makes an aggressive play for him. Phil is lonely and his marriage is disintegrating. It’s easy to imagine him taking the encounter to the next level and it’s clear he’s toying with the idea. Yet, in the end, it’s far more credible—emotionally right and sad—when he decides against it and walks out the door.

Also well-executed is the friction-filled relationship between Sarah and Phil’s unemployed druggy brother, Tim (Giovanni Ribisi), who comes to live with the grieving couple. He’s burdening them, but, worse, he seems indifferent to their loss, though Sarah’s tearful outburst that he never remembered their son’s birthday is as tortured for him as it is for her. Despite the ongoing conflict, they have an odd kinship. Yet their relationship remains static too and it works.

The acting is understated and subtle. Wilde has an expressive face, most forcefully when she says nothing, and Morano’s lingering close-ups are especially effective. Indeed, her evocative cinematography —her previous credits include Frozen River and Kill Your Darlings—makes very real a claustrophobic working-class world in literal and metaphoric disarray.

Still, the film suffers from monotony; there’s little variety in each scene’s rhythm and tone. While the film moves quickly early on, ultimately there’s a lack of momentum, and the score signaling what the audience should be feeling throughout needs cutting. But most nettlesome is the contrived ending as Sarah spirals out of control, followed by a turnaround moment and then an absurd final scene (involving an elephant) aspiring to suggest that Sarah has achieved a sense of closure where there is none; it mostly succeeds in underscoring the creative team’s inability to come up with a plausible conclusion.

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