Classic Movie ReviewsMovie ReviewsClassic Review: Ordinary People (1980)

leandromatos1981November 29, 201995/100
Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Timothy Hutton
Alvin Sargent
Robert Redford
R (United States)
Running Time
124 minutes
Overall Score
Rating Summary
Ordinary People is a powerful film that serves as a fantastic first outing from director Robert Redford.

Ordinary People has a vicious track record attached to it: it was the movie that beat Martin Scorcese’s masterpiece Raging Bull at the Oscars, and it was never forgiven for that. Raging Bull is a superior movie, the culmination of Scorsese’s masterful creative power, and it made people look down at Robert Redford’s first directorial attempt as a minor film. It isn’t; it’s a very powerful film about the destructive forces of grieving and the incommunicability that eats a family alive.

Ordinary People follows the Jarretts, a family facing the worst moment in their lives: the older son died in a boat accident. His death disrupts the dynamics of the family, who cannot stop grieving. Conrad (Hutton), the younger son, is so burdened by the guilt he slits his wrists in desperation. Now in recovery, his father, Calvin (Sutherland) tries connecting with his and most importantly, he tries bridging Conrad and Beth (Moore) who are drifting further and further apart.

One of the greater aspects of Ordinary People is its understated nature. It’s not a flashy film, on the contrary: we watch the story unfold very smoothly and it builds and builds in strength until we are totally immersed in the power it is revealing. It’s a dense story, it’s truly excruciatingly heartbreaking, to the point where it’s almost uncomfortable to watch, and one of the best aspects of the film is that it is heartbreaking, but it doesn’t ask for our tears. It’s restrained, even cold. It feels distant at the same time it feels so intimate, turning it into a very unique film experience.

Redford directed Ordinary People with a keen eye to the power of the story he was telling. He made great choices here, smart ones, and for a first-time director, it’s incredible to see his control of the narrative. There are little elements that show how attentive to detail he really was and how well he knew the script and those characters. Conrad’s shaking legs speaks volumes to how he’s feeling inside; Beth never being able to just look at her son, always needing an extra second to gather does the same; the film almost doesn’t have a soundtrack, it’s quiet, silence, again, cold. But Redford uses the theme melody in sparse times, only in the moments when the characters are lowering their guards and trying to connect to one another, trying to open themselves to the rest of the family.

One major thing shows how great Ordinary People‘s script was and how well Redford knew the material: Beth lost her favorite son and she is stuck with Conrad. She wishes it was the other way around and that Conrad was gone. Conrad knows that, Calvin knows that too but fights the truth. Although we are totally aware of those feelings, none of it is verbalized during the run. It’s there, it’s so clear, but it is in the subtext. Exactly where it should be, actually. That makes the story even more powerful, because we can totally feel it in every look, in every silence, in every confrontation.

Talking about confrontation, that is another fantastic element in the film: this is a family drama, but you could cut the tension in the air here with a knife. Some scenes are chilling it almost feels like you are watching a thriller.

The greater quality of the production is its script: all characters are well developed, even the small ones. They feel real. Conrad has an amazing arc of understanding his true feelings, but he’s not the only one. Calvin having to face the reality of his marriage is also very strong. Beth tries connecting, but here emotional issues are stronger than her attempts. Ordinary People features complex, well drawn characters, played by actors who delved into their psyche and created fully realized people.

Sutherland and Moore deliver the best performances of their careers with Ordinary People while Judd Hirsch is great as the psychiatrist. But no one here beats Timothy Hutton as Conrad, one of the best performances by a young actor ever. The way he portrays Conrad’s desperation, the small subtle choices he makes to compose the character, his looks, the body language, everything. It’s a perfect performance, the embodiment of angst. It’s impossible to watch him here and not be completely drawn to Conrad. Conrad is one of the saddest characters to ever grace the screen.

In the end, Ordinary People is a perfect little film. One that deserves every praise it gets.

*still courtesy of Paramount Pictures*

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