It's been a tough year for parents, cinematically speaking. They've suffered through the tragic death of a child ("Rabbit Hole"), the condemnation of a nation in mourning ("The Conspirator"), and the abduction of a son to an eerie fourth dimension ("Insidious"). Here, though, in Shawn Ku's drama, the parents have to endure perhaps the most devastating kind of misery imaginable: Not only do they have to survive the grief of their only child committing suicide, they have the added horror of knowing he committed a savage killing spree at his college before holding the gun to his own head in this haunting drama.
The child in question is Sam (a sufficiently haunted looking Kyle Gallner), a college freshman at a school not too far from where his parents live. The night before he goes on his rampage he calls them and speaks briefly with his father, Bill (Michael Sheen), and at slightly more length with his doting mother, Kate (Maria Bello). If he sounded more troubled than usual, they didn't notice. They are in the midst of having their own issues: Bill, remote and joyless, is a workaholic who is coldly plotting leaving his wife and moving into his own place; Kate, a literary copy editor, still has blind hope that all the family needs to get back on track is a nice vacation on the beach somewhere. After the massacre and suicide, the couple is left trying to come to terms with the loss of their child, and the guilt of him having committed such a heinous act.
The film certainly has a sensationalist plot point, but the trouble comes in the aftermath. Grief on its own, frankly, is not the most interesting of emotions to witness. By definition, it's inert and all-encompassing, reducing everybody to empty husks of themselves, which is a tricky thing to convey on screen without resorting to melodramatic histrionics or unconvincing plot twists. The film, co-written by Ku and Michael Armbruster, tries to skirt the problem by having both of its main protagonists submerge a majority of their pain underneath a more desperately normal façade. When they grieve, it's nearly always when they're alone, in the shower, or first waking up in the morning. Easily the best scene in the film is when the estranged couple first hide out from the frothing-at-the-mouth press in a hotel room together, co-conspirators in the management of their misery, almost giddy with love for one another. Though this, too, is clearly a rickety coping mechanism that eventually breaks a major spring.
If the film sounds a bit rote and literal in its construction, something Sean Penn might have directed, you're not far off. At its worst, it's an advanced acting exercise -- albeit one that finds both its leads in fine form -- with many scenes of repressed emotion tangled up with the obligatorily explosive emotional fireworks at the climax. What it never really manages to do, however, is truly peer into the souls of its characters, and, as the cynic might point out, what's the point, otherwise?