Guilt is a complex anomaly in the human psyche. It’s remorseless, it’s unbiased, it lingers for decades, and many times it takes on different forms. It can take on the form of blame, and it can form into blame of the most unlikely people, just to make sense of the senseless in our lives. In the face of tragedy some people just need to point fingers and blame the innocent just to help us cope with a horrible trauma, and the same can be said for the characters featured in one of my favorite dramas of all time.
Not all dramas can be viewed repeatedly and still be able to maintain the same blunt emotional force they achieved on the first viewing, but “Ordinary People” is a film I can see many times and still feel in my gut, the misery and unresolved issues behind the situation Conrad Jarrett experiences. One of the most relevant themes behind Robert Redford’s drama is that nothing is effectively resolved. It’s simply three bitter people learning that through this tragedy, they’re going to grow apart more and more no matter how hard they try to fight it. Timothy Hutton reached the momentum of his career providing one of the most gut wrenching performances as a young man named Conrad Jarrett.
After a horrible boating accident, his big brother drowns, sacrificing himself for Conrad, and he’s the unfortunate who survives. Unfortunate is apt, as Conrad is forced to return after the accident through a hailstorm of bitterness and guilt from the senselessness of his brother’s death. As noted, he feels guilty even though we never fully understand what occurs until the climax. Even as a young man who has it all, he’s still basically the black sheep of the family. Redford places great emphases on that element in a scene where Moore’s Beth is engaging in a conversation and laughter with their oldest more favored son Buck, as Conrad watches without inclusion.
Arriving home, he experiences the blunt anger of his mother Beth who provides a slow process of neglect to Conrad, becoming cold and despondent and preferring to keep herself uninvolved from his life. Perhaps it’s her fear of becoming close to him after losing her last son, but we learn it’s mainly because her guilt has transformed into blame. And its blame even she can’t quite understand. “Ordinary People” focuses on the tug of war between the two who can’t cope with the loss of “Buck,” and Conrad struggles with his attempts to live his life anew, with a special therapist who challenges him to come to terms with the accident. Hirsch is fantastic as Dr. Berger, a man who has Conrad pegged from the beginning, and antagonizes him to force some sense of emotion from him.
Conrad is a cold and rather quite young man who is without a doubt, a ticking time bomb. The most heartbreaking performance is from Donald Sutherland who plays a father still mourning his oldest son, while he’s torn between his affections for Conrad and his wife Beth’s absurd grudge. This film marks new territory for Mary Tyler Moore whose entire career was based on feel good movies, and roles in two of the biggest sitcoms of all time. Here, she’s a shell of a woman who turned herself off to Conrad years ago, favoring Buck in every aspect. Her hatred for Conrad becomes apparent during an awkward sequence in which Sutherland’s Calvin forces the Beth and son Conrad to take a picture together, in spite of her strong refusal to.
What’s witnessed is not the progression of a family learning to live without, but a family splitting because they live without. Buck’s death is not the straw that broke the camel’s back, but simply the element preventing the inevitable. Once he dies, the family sees each other for who they are. Conrad is slightly petulant and self-abuse, Beth is pure hatred and using her son as a symbol of pointless blame, and Jared is simply a man stuck in the middle, unable to take sides. And it’s realism. In life, tragedy can not be resolved very often, and that’s why “Ordinary People” is a masterpiece.