I have Ted to thank for bringing this lovely delicate and wrenching film to my attention. It is next up in my “under-rated movies” series.
There’s a cliche at the heart of Waking the Dead which will make it difficult to describe its power, and why it escapes being maudlin. I have some theories as to why the movie works so well, and why it dodges its own traps so deftly, but I’ll get to that later.
Waking the Dead tells the story of Fielding Pierce (played by Billy Crudup) and Sarah Williams (played by Jennifer Connelly). They are an unlikely pair.
He is a working-class boy who got a scholarship to Harvard. He joins the Coast Guard on leaving college. It is the height of the Vietnam War. So far he has escaped having to serve in the jungles of Southeast Asia. He is a boy with his eye on the ball. His family has made sure of that. From the day of his birth – from the very name he was given – his family marked him for greatness. Great expectations are piled upon his head. This is not something he minds. He sees it as an obligation to make everyone proud. He believes in America and its ideals (not a popular thing to do at that time) and comes from a long line of blue-collar Democrats who are dedicated to the democratic process. He wants to go into politics. He sets his eye on being a Senator but his real dream, the one he’s had since he was a little boy, was to be President. And you know, the more you get to know Fielding Pierce, the more feasible it seems. It’s not just that he believes in the process, and has positions on all the issues … it’s that he has a streak of ruthlessness in him that is an essential qualification for that particular job. It’s hidden, at first … but eventually, through the course of the film, that ruthlessness begins to show itself more and more clearly.
Sarah Williams is a Catholic girl from Louisiana. She works for Fielding’s brother who runs some kind of left-wing publishing house – which is how she meets Fielding. There is an immediate animal attraction between the two, although you can tell she is a bit stunned by his Coast Guard uniform, she is not sure how to deal with it. She has moved to New York, perhaps to go to college, and becomes involved in activism – not just of the student-protest variety. She is pretty hard-core. Her thoughts on the Vietnam War are clear. But you can tell, from how she talks, that she is not just a one-issue kind of girl (like many of the activisits at that time were). She’s an idealist – same as Fielding is – but her perception is different. She’s basically a hippie Catholic girl. Much of the activism she does is through the Catholic Church. She wanted to be a nun when she was a little girl. Fielding asks her what happened, why she didn’t become one. Sarah bursts into laughter and says, “Puberty.”
Now. There is the cliche. All set up. Left-wing activist and dude who wants to be President start a love affair. Sounds cliche, right?
But not how it is filmed, not how it is written, and certainly not how it is played.
This is not a spoiler. The film opens with this scene: Fielding sits in a dark room watching television. The camera is close on his face. The old-fashioned TV glimmers blue. A news report is on. There is a burning car. Chaos. The newscaster speaks of the Sanctuary Movement, a group of Catholic activists who were traveling down to Chile to rescue priests and political prisoners. And the car on fire had 2 Chilean nationalists in it, and one American woman. All three were killed. “The American woman, a Sarah Williams …” drones the newscaster – and suddenly there is a grainy photograph of Jennifer Connellly on the screen … It is all quite banal. But Billy Crudup, when he sees her face, begins to clutch at his head, the pain shattering his calm surface, he is howling with grief. It’s an extraordinary opening to a film.
The film goes back and forth in time – from the mid-1970s when Fielding and Sarah meet – to the early 80s – when Fielding is running for Congress. Sarah was killed in 1974. He has never completely recovered. And suddenly, during his election season, he begins to think he sees Sarah. Everywhere. She is always in a long grey and brown poncho, with long dark hair. She is on the sidewalk, at the airport, glimpsed in crowds …
He starts to be convinced that she actually DIDN’T die back in 1974. He begins to think she survived and is now living underground. From what he knew of Sarah, her commitment to her principles, it would make sense. Her death was a fake, in order to generate more outrage towards the abuses happening in Chile. (If an American died, then we REALLY must do something!)
The more he tries to talk to the people in his life about his growing conviction that Sarah survived a decade ago – and that she has been seen … the more nervous people get. After all, he is now running for office. Hal Holbrooke plays the bigwig who “sponsors” his campaign, a cigar-chomping Russian Jew, who is relatively humorless, and ambitious as hell.
There will be no “radical dead girlfriend come to life” bump in the road in any campaign HE runs. Also, the fact that Fielding was once involved with such a flaming radical is problematic enough. Best to just let Sarah be dead. The pressure begins to build in Fielding. He is now completely surrounded by people who do not understand, who do not even hear him … and he begins to, for all intents and purposes, go mad.
The film is not told chronologically. We flip back and forth, and I think some of the cliched feeling underlying everything comes from this non-chronological format. We see the apartment he lived in with Sarah – warm red colors, quilts, homey, homespun …
and we segue to the apartment he lives in with Alice, the niece of Hal Holbrooke – his current day girlfriend – and it’s all sleek and hardwood floors and modern furniture … You know, he’s lost his soul. He’s lost a bit of his humanity. I think that the production design could have been a bit more subtle in that regard. The film already works – because of the great scenework done by Crudup and Connelly – we already know that they love each other, that life with one another may have been strenuous and annoying – but it was also passionate and engaged. MUCH has been lost in Crudup’s life with the loss of Sarah. That is clear. We don’t need to see that Fielding now lives in a glorified interior decorating magazine to get that point. It was too on the nose for me.
Fielding and Sarah go out on a date, their first date, where they talk about politics, the war.
She is one of those people who cannot understand why anyone would ever ever want to join the “system”. He thinks that if he is INSIDE the system, then maybe he can do some good. She wants to work against the system, because the system itself is the problem.
I’m making this sound dryer than it actually is. Their conversations buzz with sexual attraction and frustration. He wants her, he thinks she is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. They begin a romance.
She starts to work for a local Catholic church, and through a priest there, becomes involved with the dangerous events in Chile. She travels to Chile, even though it is very dangerous and Fielding doesn’t want her to go.
These two characters – both with passionate beliefs – opposed to one another ideologically – and yet in love with the other’s conviction – have, as is obvious, a rather difficult time. Fielding begins to climb higher and higher within the ranks of the Democratic Party in Illinois. She supports him, because she loves him, but she – a hippie Catholic girl – who doesn’t shave her underarms, completely does not fit in at the political events.
There are some GREAT scenes between them.
She starts to move further and further over to the Left. Fielding, a Democrat, thinks she has lost her mind, and thinks the people she hangs out with are self-righteous superior assholes.
What the movie really is about is their love. But there’s so much more in there. It’s about America – it’s about politics – it’s about, to some degree, what happened to the best and brightest of the Left, during the Vietnam War. How so many of them became so disenchanted that they had to check out entirely. They stopped being a part of the conversation in this country. One way to look at all of this is as an extended metaphor (although the movie is subtle, and does not hit you over the head with it): Here is this Democrat Congressman-to-be, haunted by his radical Left girlfriend, killed by her political beliefs. The Democrats, haunted by that side of their party, by that fringe element – the Democrats haunted by the ghost of the Vietnam War. But that’s just an interpretation.
The movie doesn’t really take sides – we see both viewpoints. Fielding is the true narrator of the piece, so I suppose there is some bias there. But in some scenes, he is right. In other scenes, she is right. They both misbehave. They both lose their cool in inappropriate settings: she, at a political cocktail party – when she berates a writer for his “reprehensible” article in Newsweek about the situation in Chile – and he, at a church dinner honoring the two Chilean nationals who are helping to organize the Sanctuary Movement. Their contempt for America ends up pushing Fielding over the edge, and he starts shouting about, ‘Isn’t it interesting that even though everyone hates America – everyone ends up washing up on OUR shores …” The best parts about these scenes is the aftermath – when the couple tries to come down from what happened, and they talk things out. These are long intense scenes, often done in one take (there’s a great scene on a Chicago “L” train – all one take. Just watch these two actors listen and talk! Amazing!)
They are not wholly in opposition. She senses he might want to change her. He insists that that is not true. But she has some misgiving. Fielding has a sense of destiny. He feels he must “lead”. Well, she has a sense of destiny, too. How on earth will that ever work? Could she ever be First Lady, for example? With her political convictions? She doesn’t see how that will ever happen. But she loves him. “You are the only man I have ever loved,” she tells him.
She never comes off as being insane. She just wants to do good. Just like he does. She believes in God, she believes in a just universe. She also, because she loves him, believes that if anyone could do any good in politics, Fielding would be the one. Fielding believes in the political process. “Of course our government plays rough. All governments play rough,” he says. But he doesn’t believe that opting OUT of the process is helpful. Because then that would just leave politics to the WORST that America has to offer. He wants to get “inside”, to try to do some good. She feels that the system itself is corrupt.
So, on some level, she holds him in contempt.
And on some level, he holds her in contempt.
Wonderfully, and rarely, the film holds neither of them in contempt. We love them both.
Their scenes together, talking all this out, are spectacular. Both actors are at the top of their game. There is an improvisational feel to their conversations. You feel you are watching something real. It is not “positional”, even though it may sound like it is. It’s not a question of being diametrically opposed (although, as the relationship goes south, they do become more extremely opposite). They love each other. She supports him and reads his papers that he writes for law school, they argue about the issues. She is not so dogmatic that she is obnoxious. There’s one beautiful scene where they lie on the couch, and they’re talking about revolutions. He insists that revolutions have terrible track records, you have to take that into account. She argues that it is still worthwhile to support the democratic revolutions going on at that time, in Latin America, Africa. They really talk. It feels real. He listens. She argues. She listens. At one point, she says, “You’re going to be a brilliant lawyer. You just have to put up with me as your Jiminy Cricket, okay?” He grins at her, and you can see her suddenly get nervous. Nervous about the future, and how this dynamic will play itself out. She grasps onto him, pulling him close, begging, “Is it okay?” It’s a gorgeous moment. In that moment, she is not her political beliefs, her opposition to the system. In that moment, she is a girlfriend, nervous that she is being too much of a pain in the ass and he will leave her because of it.
The movie is full of moments like that.
There is one scene where she comes home from a long day working at the Church. He sits at the table in their apartment. He has been studying all day. He is angry that she is late. “You spend all your time at the church,” he says. She is gentle in response. “You spend all your time studying …” What is great about the way this particular scene is written is that it does not become a petty argument. This is not a petty couple. At first it seems he’s just being pissy because she’s late. But it eventually comes out that he is nervous about her having a life outside of him. That could so be played in an obnoxious sexist way, but that’s not what this movie is about. It’s about love. Which is often messy. She’s the one who gets that. He’s going on about how she spends too much time at the church … she says to him gently, “You can’t be everything to me, Fielding.” There’s a long pause as he thinks that out. He says, quietly, he knows she speaks the truth but he has to say what’s on his mind, “But I want to be.” Now please watch the symphony of a response that goes over Jennifer Connelly’s face. It stops her in her tracks. She looks at him, ruefully, sad, almost, and whispers, “Oh, dear.” You have no idea what this woman will say next. Then, a soft smile comes over her face … and she says, “I love that you just said that.”
You see? Life is complicated. We are not JUST our positions on things. And yes, it is true that one person cannot be everything to the other. But isn’t it wonderful when someone wants to be?
Connelly is a revelation in this part. I cannot imagine any other actress being as effective. She’s so herself. Also I love to see a film that is so open and yet so deep about sex. Their sex scenes are not about writhing Olympic-level gymnastics. There’s one scene where they are just face to face, that’s all you see … and as they make love, one tear slowly falls down the side of Connelly’s face. I have never seen a sex scene that is so connected, so raw, so real.
In the later sections of the film, after her death, things start to go slowly wrong … even as everything clicks into place for him, in terms of what he has always wanted. He’s campaigning. But he sees Sarah in the crowds. He sees her everywhere. The way this is handled in the film is fantastic. Sometimes you can tell it actually is Jennifer Connelly. Other times it’s a little girl with long dark hair. Other times it starts out being Jennnifer Connelly, and then on a closer look, you see that it is not her at all.
There is a terrible scene where he is walking through a hallway in an airport, and he sees someone approach, wearing a big woollen poncho, with long dark hair, and he thinks it is her. Then he sees it is not her. Then he sees another poncho-clad girl coming at him … and then another … and then another … until the entire hallway is filled with various versions of the girl he once loved, the girl he still loves.
He becomes convinced that she actually did not die in that car. He became convinced that her death was faked, that it was a political move engineered by the far-Left. That she actually is still alive somewhere, in the underground (like Running on Empty.)
It is never clear in the movie whether he is actually losing his mind, or whether there might be some truth to these fantasies. We are totally in his point of view throughout. Things fade in, fade out. We see fragments of things, reflections. He stands at his window, staring out into the snow, and the landscape looks frighteningly empty. Because she is not in it. You feel that at any moment, a small poncho-clad girl is going to stroll through the streetlamp light below. She could be anywhere. And therefore, she is everywhere. Even in her absence.
This is a film about loss.
The last scene knocked the wind out of me the first time I saw it. I wouldn’t dream of revealing it here. But it left me with questions, breathless and urgent. Did she die? What was real? Is it possible she survived? Living in the underground? Is she a ghost? Has he gone mad?
The film does not answer those questions. I have my own ideas about it. I think that yes, she did survive. But you could make a case for the opposite as well. That she did die (after all, a coffin came back from Chile, didn’t it? Wasn’t there a funeral and everything?) – and Fielding is haunted by her. He thinks he sees her. He does not know what is real anymore.
There are a couple of break-down scenes with Crudup that are as good as it gets, in terms of film acting. It’s uncomfortable. He gets so discombobbled that there are moments when you feel like he, the actor, might have forgotten his lines. But isn’t that how it is with us, when we are beyond the pale in terms of being upset? Grief isn’t neat or articulate. He’s so wonderful.
And she, with her bushy eyebrows, her sensuous long hair, her awkward attempts at wearing makeup for his political events, emerges as a truly real person. The film begins with a report of her death. But she is omnipresent through the whole film. It is Crudup who is in every scene. But she dominates.
Through her absence.
More in my Under-rated Movies Series:
This post covers 5: Ball of Fire, Only Angels Have Wings, Dogfight, Zero Effect and Manhattan Murder Mystery