Silent Fall

Hampton Film Festival 1994 (World Premiere)–An awkward synthesis of autism as a clinical problem and family abuse as a social issue, Bruce Beresford's Silent Fall is a well-crafted murder mystery that unfortunately is short on excitement and genuine suspense.

Lack of dazzling star power, downbeat word-of-mouth, and competition from several major films in the next two weeks will spell box-office disappointment for Warners' earnest psychological drama.

Richard Dreyfuss plays Jake Rainer, a once prominent psychiatrist whose successful work with autistic children drew on his unique mix of warmth, humor, and personal methods. But a disastrous incident, for which he was indicted and then acquitted, has made him a man haunted by guilt and anguish, one who refuses to practice–or share intimacy with his wife–anymore.

Jake is forced out of his professional and emotional stupor, when a bizarre double murder occurs at the Wardens' estate. There are no obvious clues, but there are two witnesses: Tim Warden (Ben Faulkner), an autistic 9-year-old boy, and his overly protective sister Sylvie (Liv Tyler). When Jake arrives at the scene of the crime, Tim is holding a bloody knife, and Sylvie is hiding in the closet.

At first, he's reluctant to get involved, which gives his wife (Linda Hamilton) plenty of ammunition for accusing him of being a failure. It's only when his rival, the stern Dr. Harlinger (John Lithgow), subjects Tim to his notorious authoritarian treatment that Jake takes the child under his wings.

The first–and more interesting–part of the narrative focuses on the symptoms of autism. As is often the case with such movies, Jake provides all kinds of medical explanations so that every viewer will understand what autism is or isn't.

The son of prominent psychiatrists who himself ran a center for autistic children, scripter Goldsman structures this part as a clinical case study, with many fascinating and bizarre details. Some viewers are likely to find these meticulously observed sequences, in which Tim speaks in different voices or reacts in unpredictable manner, not terribly absorbing.

However, after an hour or so, the film changes gears and turns into a rather conventional thriller. As such, it depends on offering twists and revelations, and indeed, we learn that the murdered wife was Jake's patient and that she had a liaison with the local sheriff (Walsh), who's now in charge of the case.

Chief problem is that pic provides so many clues that it's possible to unravel the killer's identity long before the finale. Moreover, pandering to the public, the very last scene, a curiously uplifting image, negates the bleaker and more realistic tone of the rest of the story.

Helmer Beresford, who has made forceful courtroom (Breaker Morant) and social-issue movies (Driving Miss Daisy) shows smooth adeptness to the requirement of the suspense genre. As always, though, he's more interested in character development than plot, which here gets progressively contrived–and banal.

In the lead role of a man who had emotionally “withdrawn” from the world, Dreyfuss renders one of his more restrained and effective performances. Holding the entire picture together, he has some excellent moments in his one-to-one interactions with the kid.

It's refreshing to see the muscled Hamilton in a non-action picture, but as Jake's suffering wife, she plays a thankless role whose main purpose is to remind Jake that he's a quitter. Tyler and Faulkner, two attractive newcomers, are well cast as the troubled siblings.

Technical input, which benefits from Beresford's long-time collaborations, shows prowess in all quarters, particularly James' crisp lensing of Maryland's countryside and Stoddart's impressive production design.

Silent Fall doesn't sentimentalize autistic children, but like Rain Man and Awakenings, it trivializes autism for entertainment purposes, which may be morally dubious.

Credits

A Warners Bros. release of a Morgan Creek Production. Produced by James A. Robinson. Executive producer, Gary Barber. Co-producers, Penelope L. Foster, Jim Kouf and Lynn Bigelow. Directed by Bruce Beresford. Screenplay, Akiva Goldsman. Camera (Duart, prints by Technicolor), Peter James; editor, Ian Crafford; music, Stewart Copeland; art direction,David Bomba; set decoration, Patty Malone; costume design, Colleen Kelsall; sound (Dolby), Chris Newman; assistant director, Katterli A. Frauenfelder; casting, Shari Rhodes, Joseph Middleton. Reviewed at Hamptons Film Festival, October 23, 1994. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 100 min.

Cast

Jake Rainer…..Richard Dreyfuss
Karen Rainer……Linda Hamilton
Dr. Harlinger…….John Lithgow
Sheriff Mitch Rivers..J.T. Walsh
Tim Warden……….Ben Faulkner
Sylvie Warden……….Liv Tyler