By Don Simpson | December 5, 2007
Director: James C. Strouse
Writer: James C. Strouse
Starring: John Cusack
Stanley Phillips (John Cusack) is a frumpy, middle-aged manager at a home improvement store eerily reminiscent of Home Depot. A lonely sad sack of a military spouse, Stanley single-handedly raises his two young daughters, Heidi (Shelan O’Keefe) and Dawn (Gracie Bednarczyk), in their middle-class, middle-American army base home; while his wife, their mother, Grace (Dana Lynne Gilhooley) is off protecting their country from the evil terrorists in Iraq – a man’s role that Stanley wishes he could play himself, but the Army rejected him due to poor eyesight.
Stanley is notified that Grace was killed in the line of duty. In fact, Grace became just another statistic shamelessly overlooked by the war-mongering government she was fighting for; but Stanley does not think that. He is a red-blooded Republican with unwavering trust in his government and their military actions; though in his attempts to come to terms with Grace’s death, Stanley is unable to determine whether he should be proud or angry.
Stanley is incapable of communicating to his daughters that their mother was killed. Like the president he, and not the U.S. people, elected (twice), Stanley would rather bury his head in the sand and ignore the atrocities occurring in Iraq (including Grace’s death). He feels incapable of explaining to them how they should feel about their mother’s untimely death. So, what does Stanley do? He takes his daughters on a road trip to an amusement park in a futile attempt to protect them from learning the truth about their mother.
Cusack’s heart-wrenching performance is unlike anything else he’s ever done. Practically unrecognizable in publicity shots for Grace Is Gone; he appears aged, battered and worn, with a little extra chub in his cheeks and a beer belly to boot. Always the likable bachelor with tactful taste in tunes, Cusack has never been known for his acting range. If he didn’t produce Grace Is Gone I doubt he would have ever been considered for this “emotional car-wreck waiting to happen” role. Yet Cusack is able to transform a character the blue states would love to hate (because people like Stanley supported the U.S. war in Iraq in the first place) and the red states would never want as the spokesperson for their cause (because he is frumpy, unsuccessful, downtrodden, depressed…) into a character that both sides of the American divide can feel empathy for. Both the “us” and “them” would have difficulty not feeling sorry for someone whose spouse was killed in Iraq, it amplifies the pity tenfold knowing that the death left someone like Stanley alone to raise his two young daughters.
Writer-director James C. Strouse’s Grace Is Gone deserves some kudos just for being a challenging film. It is a tough sell, certainly not a movie that everyone is going to rush out to see so close to Christmas (unlike Cusack’s previous holiday flick – 2005’s The Ice Harvest). With little hope or good cheer, it is a frustrating and depressing tearjerker promising to leave nary a dry eye in the audience.
A well-crafted, slowly-paced story with a talented cast, it is the message of Grace Is Gone that is worthy of both blue and red states alike. Grace Is Gone is not over-saturated with what the conservative right considers “liberal Hollywood mumbo-jumbo” as it skillfully skirts catering to one agenda over the other. Very few political films (especially in the recent, highly unprecedented, onslaught of films overtly critical of the United States’ presence in Iraq) are appealing to the very people they are attempting to convert, instead they end up preaching to the choir (though the liberal left sure needs a motivating swift kick in the ass). If Grace Is Gone can attract some war-mongering Republicans into its audience, there is a slight chance that this film just might shorten the timeline of the U.S. presence in Iraq.