At the beginning of Barbet Schroeder's new Before and After, we're shown a winter landscape of steel blue skies and crisp snow; as the camera moves through a frozen waterway, we see the motion of fish and a waterfall. Then, scanning a still field, the camera finds blood, and a body sprawled in the whiteness. This opening sequence establishes a pattern that's repeated throughout the film: beautiful images that evoke the emotion a family drama requires, and then sudden ugliness to create the unease required for suspense.
This yanking from one perspective to another is what Schroeder, best known lately for Single White Female, is after. Though there's a dead girl involved and a whodunit element to the plot, the story isn't really about tracking a killer; it's about what happens to a murder suspect's family. And it's about how the suspect's parents create two poles of response to the accusations against him.
Meryl Streep and Liam Neeson are Carolyn and Ben Ryan. She's a caring and compassionate lady doctor; he's a successful sculptor. They and their two children live in a Martha Stewart dream of an old farmhouse. This bucolic vision is the "before" of the movie's title; the "after" starts when the local lawman comes calling. A girl, Martha Taverner, has been found dead in a field, and Jacob Ryan (Edward Furlong) is suspected of being her murderer. From the moment her son is accused, and throughout the damaging confusion that follows, Carolyn Ryan has faith in the truth -- her notion of which encompasses both the Sunday school notion with a capital T and the gritty, stubborn facts of what happened in the snow covered field.
Streep plays the noble and resolute side of her character with nobility and resolve that is, even for Streep, astonishing. Her serene trust in her notion of truth is what fuel's Before and After's emotional momentum. Liam Neeson's Ben Ryan, in contrast, is a fool. From the start, his strategy is to avoid getting caught. By who? For what? Anything and anyone, apparently. When the murder accusation is made, only two facts are known: a girl is dead and Jacob is missing. Ben Ryan decides that if his son is in trouble, he must first be protected from outsiders and only later dealt with. Ben hysterically burns evidence, never minding that it might end up exonerating his son. Throughout the Ryans' ordeal, Ben is loud, shortsighted and destructive. His tirades and errors give the story complexity, but they drain the audience almost as much as they drain his family. One wonders why Streep doesn't simply dose his cocoa and wake him when it's all over.
As the accused murderer, Edward Furlong is a good choice if only because he is the most ambiguous creature on the planet. As a near-catatonic suspect, Furlong is convincing. But once he's told his family what actually happened to Martha Taverner and himself, once he's speaking, Furlong's trademark wincing becomes unconvincing. When he answers the one question his younger sister (Julie Weldon) asks, what should be an intimate exchange becomes simply embarrassing.
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If it weren't for the fierce, relentless performance of Alfred Molina as Jacob's lawyer, the second half of Before and After might shudder to a halt, but his character, Panos Demeris, drives the second half. Demeris is not at all sentimental. He has no sympathy for the family, and he has no joy in his own ruthlessness. Time and again -- as new evidence about Martha and Jacob surfaces -- Demeris tells the family how he'll present the case. Mom needs to look bad? Fine. He'll present her as a delusional control freak. Jacob needs to be insane? Okay. Demeris will detail a lifetime of addiction to whatever drug seems most useful. He is, he tells them, a professional. And this presentation of a man with one motive and a thousand strategies gives the movie a much needed lift.
It's not, however, enough of a lift to finally rescue the film, and the fault for that can be laid at the feet of director Schroeder. It might not seem likely at first blush, but comparisons can be drawn between Before and After and Single White Female. Both have an intriguing premise -- we all worry about our relatives and roommates and wonder what we'd do if they turned out bad. Admittedly, Before and After is more coherent than Single White Female, which, after the interesting setup, simply ran amuck. But like Schroeder's earlier thriller, Before and After has some careless storytelling. And like Female, it also has bad sex (one laughably bad scene, over before the giggles it inspires spoil the movie's mood) and an injury to the eye. The injury to the eye is the most disturbing similarity, and something that most suggests laziness on the filmmaker's part. In Single White Female, a not-so-nice man dies when a spike heel goes through his eye and into his brain. In Before and After, a not-so-nice girl dies from an eerily similar injury.
It seems as though Schroeder has used the same strategy in both movies: take a question everyone has -- can I trust the people in my house? -- gouge out somebody's eye and count on at least one good character to carry the film. And just as his Single White Female was a serviceable, though not memorable, thriller, Schroeder's Before and After is a serviceable, though not memorable, family drama.
Before and After. Directed by Barbet Schroeder. With Meryl Streep, Liam Neeson, Edward Furlong and Julia Weldon. Rated PG-13. 108 minutes.