In 1980, Robert Redford showed a talent for dark drama that had not been visible in his acting performances so far when he directed Ordinary People, a simple but fascinating tale of a family that used to be a role model for the typical ‘perfect American family’ but is slowly breaking apart after the oldest son dies in an accident at sea.
Timothy Hutton gave an exceptional performance of an interesting yet ultimately ‘expected’ character. Mary Tyler Moore on the other hand gives a performance that benefits a great deal from the fact that her character is a never-ending enigma – the cold, emotionally unavailable mother has been done before but seldom has she been so human and yet so robot-like at the same time. It’s a case where the character is ultimately much more interesting than the actress bringing her to life but Mary Tyler Moore still adds a lot to Beth herself, too, and doesn’t let her performance be dictated by the screenplay. Judd Hirsch gives a very appealing performance that constantly brings a surprising amount of warmth into the cold structure of the story. Donald Sutherland may have been the only leading cast-member not nominated for an Oscar but he, too, does outstanding work as a confused father who is caught between his wife and his son.
The movie gets most of its energy and effect from the cast but they never overshadow the intriguing plot. Robert Redford directs this small story with a lot of skill and dignity. It’s a story that is driven by the characters and their interactions and Redford never tries to interrupt this wonderful flow. The picture made the smart movie to begin the story when the perfection that Beth so desperately wants is already destroyed – after the death of her first son. That way the viewer is thrown right into the tension of the story but at the same time it is not hard to imagine that, yes, Beth once achieved this level of perfection in her life. Now, her most obvious characteristic is her inability to communicate with her second son – is she blaming him for what happened or is she blaming him more for his inability to cope with his own feelings, or better, hide his own feelings since his problems, his need for a psychiatrist only destroy her family’s façade? Would she maybe even have preferred him to die instead? Again, the character of Beth is one of the most fascinating one to speculate about and the relationship between her and Conrad is the movie’s biggest success. But apart from that, Robert Redford and Timothy Hutton know how to make Ordinary People a story that is both about Conrad’s family but also just about Conrad – his attempts to start his life anew provide the movie with some unforgettable scenes, especially at the end with Judd Hirsch.
Again, it’s a simple story but underneath it turns out to be a very unique and haunting story that is both intellectually and emotionally appealing.