Wednesday 1 June 2022

Movie Review: Before And After (1996)

A choppy crime and legal drama, Before And After flounders in search of logic and focus.

In a rural Massachusetts community, pediatrician Dr. Carolyn Ryan (Meryl Streep) is married to industrial sculptor Ben (Liam Neeson). Their life is shattered when their son Jacob (Edward Furlong) becomes the prime suspect in the murder of local teenager Martha Taverner. Jacob, who is now missing, was the last person seen with the victim.

Carolyn is convinced it's all a misunderstanding. But Ben finds and destroys apparent evidence of foul play he finds in the trunk of Jacob's car. When the young man is apprehended, Carolyn and Ben hire lawyer Panos Demeris (Alfred Molina) to mount a defence. Not satisfied with evidence tampering, Ben fabricates a fake narrative to try and secure a not guilty verdict for his son.

An adaptation of a Rosellen Brown book, Before And After features a decent small-town mood, and the occasional spark in conveying a family in turmoil. As the narrator pondering the life-changing impact of a sudden crisis, daughter Judith (Julia Weldon) adds a peripheral but important observer's presence.

But otherwise, this drama barely rises above routine television fare, the Ted Tally script several drafts away from cinematic quality and never settling on a compelling theme. Stooping to the level of an asinine story, director Barbet Schroeder fails to leverage the talent at his disposal. Meryl Streep is caught in material well beneath her standards and delivers a disengaged, almost comatose performance. Liam Neeson oscillates between concerned father and outright boor working hard to make a bad situation worse.

Schroeder builds up to legal showdowns but never enters the courtroom, engaging instead in pre and post theatrics. Other structural problems arrive early then multiply. Ben never pauses to think whether the evidence in his son's trunk may vindicate rather incriminate, while prime suspect Jacob remains silent when it suits the script, then suddenly decides to spill the beans. Still thinking he is the smartest person in the community when plenty of clues suggest otherwise, Ben concots a web of lies that would never survive rudimentary examination. By this bewildering point, father, mother, son, and lawyer carry divergent agendas and different versions of the same events into the legal proceedings.

The one consistent thread is a dad's complex and misplaced devotion expressed through ill-advised acts and short-tempered confrontations. Guilty or not, with Ben as a father Jacob is already doomed.

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