If society can be considered the organism, the family is the structural adhesive that holds the cells of that organism together. As every organism is bombarded daily by threats and external pressures, the family is where these challenges are met and dealt with; problems are examined and the family unit adapts, and the organism evolves. Things can get dicey, however, when the adjustment that works for the family does not exactly jive with society’s expectations, and this makes for inimitable drama onscreen.
People face matters of conscience on a daily basis, so much so that we don’t even notice the decision-making process our brains constantly perform. Options are automatically estimated for their value and consequences weighed in a lightening response – and usually that’s the end of it. Sometimes, however, those decisions can disrupt the family’s internal structure and standing in society. A controversial reaction to a challenge, a desperate action to satisfy an ethical tenet, or the subversive behavior of the upper hierarchy in a family will reverberate through the unit and beyond, with unique results.
Here are five of my preferred examples of the glue that keeps things all in the family, and it’s no coincidence that two of them feature a young actor who specialized in these roles – River Phoenix – who we lost way too soon.
Force Majeure Ruben Östlund (2014)
The role of the father as the primary protector of the family takes a direct hit from director Östlund in this tense, insightful and, yes, funny film. This is a director who has obviously put much thought in the frailty that lurks within every man. When an event occurs that requires a standard male reaction to choose “fight” over “flight,” societal expectation is that the man will assume his standard role and protect the family, but when that doesn’t happen, the entire fabric is stressed both from within the and without. Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) is vacationing with his family at an Alpine resort when an avalanche roars directly towards the lodge where his family is dining in the outdoor café. He bolts – and spends the remainder of the film seeking forgiveness from everyone, including himself. Östlund uses this premise as a mere framework to examine, question and even ridicule gender roles in today’s society. He’s one of the most original filmmakers working today.
Running on Empty Sidney Lumet (1988)
Shakespeare said, “the sins of the father are to be laid upon the children,” and Sidney Lumet applies that adage to a pair of 60s activists who, as they approach middle age and have a family, are still on the run from the FBI two decades later. The Popes (Christine Lahti and Judd Hirsch), who are constantly changing identities and locations, have a teenage son, Danny (the amazing River Phoenix) who happens to be a prodigy on the piano and who is being prompted by a teacher to audition for Juilliard. When Danny falls in love, the cat’s out of the bag and tension within the family hits a high. The Popes have to flee yet again, but what of Danny’s future? Do they make him pay for their transgressions with the law? This type of personal drama was Lumet’s forte and delivers an emotionally honest punch. It also contains River Phoenix’s only Oscar-nominated performance and a rare film score by jazz artist Tony Motolla.
Mosquito Coast Peter Weir (1986)
Travel writer Paul Theroux occasionally dabbled in fiction and his novel about a man who, manically discontented with society, uproots his family and packs them off for a pure and uncorrupted life in Belizean rainforest. Allie (Harrison Ford) soon discovers that all the fears he has regarding politics, religion and consumerism manage to spread anywhere human beings can be found, and his obsession turns frantic as his family – wife Helen Mirren and son River Phoenix (again), begin to feel like prisoners. John Seale does a magnificent job with the cinematography, and Weir’s direction and Paul Schrader’s sly screenplay make for a film that may take a second viewing to fully appreciate. Ford scolded some of the critics of the film upon its release for rushing to judgment – this is not the type of film that was fashionable in the “Me”-obsessed decade of the 80s – but later critics have been far kinder to it. After Witness, this is probably Ford’s best performance and it certainly is his most challenging as Allie becomes unwound in frightening fashion.
The Grapes of Wrath John Ford (1940)
John Ford’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s keystone novel about a family forced to abandon their homestead in the Dustbowl Depression is one of only a handful of films that maintain their strength and power to move an audience some seventy years after it was made. It’s a true classic in every sense and was one of the first films to be earmarked when the US National Film Registry was established in 1989. The great cinematographer, Gregg Toland, captures every wisp of dust as the Joad’s pack everything they can possible carry – including three generations – onto a ramshackle truck and head for what is hopefully a new opportunity California. The social commentary steps beyond the usual Hollywood restraint of the time, and the film is most famous for the performance of Henry Fonda as Tom Joad – fresh from prison and, due to circumstances, bound to return – and Jane Darwell as his “Ma.” The closing soliloquy rings as true as if the ink from Steinbeck’s pen had just dried on the paper it was written.
The Lion in Winter Anthony Harvey (1968)
As if we didn’t already know this firsthand, even royalty can have family issues. There is no finer example of this than Henry II (Peter O’Toole) who, for his own safety, keeps his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Kate Hepburn), locked away year round, letting her out only to celebrate Christmas with their three conniving sons. James Goldman’s script is indeed gold as the family members aim pithy, Albee-an verbal darts at each other as they use the Yuletide to try and out-maneuver each other. O’Toole and Hepburn are positively robust, as are Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton – in their screen debuts. This is a frolicking, sometimes cruel but always entertaining display of an exceptional screenplay delivered by the perfect cast. The fire contained in their words warms the dank and dark hallways as they scheme, manipulate and confront each other, all in the festive spirit.
Genre Blast returns! While we have at least a dozen on the docket, we’re always open to suggestions. If you have a topic you would like to see covered, add a comment or send us an email – we love a challenge!