Yeah, the drug of romance and its rotten hangover are nothing new to stage, screen, and stereo. Yet it doesn't matter how well you prepare, how many amulets you wear and mantras you chant; love will circle overhead until you collapse in the desert, and love will gouge out and swoop away with your vitals.
The reason Keith Gordon's Waking the Dead is so beautiful and satisfying is that it takes no shortcuts through the aforementioned wasteland. Based on the novel by Scott Spencer, the movie is at once a romance, a mystery, a political drama, and a very subtle ghost story. Most notably, it robustly broaches a theme seldom explored in mainstream film: that of a young man's quest to regain his spiritual integrity in the wake of a soul mate's passing. Several drafts and nearly a decade after its initial development, the project arrives with a strength and subtlety almost nonexistent in movies rushed off the film factories' assembly lines.
"You can't be everything to me," tenderly explains Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connelly) to her smoldering, sensitive beau, Fielding Pierce (Billy Crudup). When he replies that, indeed, he does want to be everything, she nearly acquiesces: "Oh, dear . . . I love that you said that." Not only is the moment ideal for peering into this relationship, it leads to some of the most wonderfully wrenching cinematic eroticism in many a season.
The tears that pour forth feel no more like actors' tears than the ones Fielding weeps in the opening sequence, set in 1974, when he gapes in disbelief at the television, which tells him his love is presumed dead in a car-bombing. Flash back to 1972, to the groovy New York (Montreal) publishing office of Fielding's hippie brother Danny (Paul Hipp), where Fielding, fresh out of the Coast Guard, is smitten by the earthy Sarah. After blathering about himself through lunch, he asks her to dinner, which she accepts on the promise that she'll be allowed to talk. Thus the romance begins.
Zoom ahead 10 years, to snowy Chicago (Montreal), where political mentor Isaac Green (Hal Holbrook) states his intention of grooming District Attorney Fielding Pierce to run for Congress. Fielding is game for the promotion, and Green is savvy enough to make it work. The problem is that Sarah has begun to reappear on Fielding's periphery, disrupting his concentration as well as his relationship with Juliet Beck (Molly Parker), who happens to be Green's niece. Sarah haunts Fielding in the snow, in his heart, in his coldly lit bed with Juliet. As his political aspirations are slowly manifested, his emotional stability gradually disintegrates.
With this established, Waking the Dead charts the evolution of 10 years, both for Fielding and for America, nimbly juxtaposing painfully vibrant memories of the '70s with the tightened regimen of the '80s. In this sense, it's a coming-of-age movie, but the editing is so fluid that it feels all of a piece. Waking the Dead is a pensive, reflective movie, more or less equal in tone to Ang Lee's The Ice Storm, yet due to its temporal breadth and tight emotional focus, it packs a more intimate punch.