I started an extensive review of 1980’s Ordinary People four days ago and today I’ll finish the rest of the movie (actually 3/4 of the movie, but I’ll manage to keep it short). Let’s get right into it.
When Conrad meets with a former co-patient, Karen (Dinah Madoff), from the hospital he stayed in, after his suicide attempt, it becomes even clearer how uncomfortable he feels in his world. He confesses to her that he misses the hospital:
Conrad: I don’t know, I just… I miss it sometimes. The hospital. Really do. Karen: Things have to change, you know. Conrad: But that’s where we had the laughs. Karen: But that was a hospital. This is the real world. Conrad: Yeah, yeah, sure…
The “real world” is what scares Conrad and the hospital was his refuge from it. He could laugh and didn’t have to think about his guilt, the expectations from his parents and school and the void he feels between himself and his mother. It’s interesting that Karen is so appalled by this thought and their connection seems to have been lost now. What we think here, is that she has changed and moved on, but if you look closely, you see she’s really trying to keep up the appearance that she’s “well” now, while underneath there is something simmering, which we only really realize late in the movie (when she kills herself).
He has this one real conversation with his mother, or he tries to, but when he mentions that he is thinking about things, she comments on his hair, again, for all the effort she shows here, makes clear that she is too scared to look under the surface. Soon, the conversation becomes a problem until Conrad literally barks to stop the unpleasantness. But because he is so desperate to get her love, so much that it almost kills him, he goes after her and says “Mom?” and you can see the fear in her face. Again, fear of being asked to show love, to show emotions. It’s truly unsettling. There’s a shot where she stands on the phone (to which she escaped the conversation) and we see him in the background on one side and reflect in the mirror on the other side of her. It’s an interesting shot and I wonder what it means. That she can’t really escape him because he’s her son and everywhere? That he fades into her background, no matter how hard he tries? That his lack of self-confidence is a reflection of her lack of affection?
There’s a scene where the grandparents take pictures of the family and it’s one of the most awkward moments ever. The pretense is unbearable and while Beth and Conrad both feel it, it’s Conrad who snaps at his father for insisting on taking a picture of him and his mother, although they can barely stand to stand close to each other. This is probably the moment the family really falls apart, especially since we’ve seen Calvin already working through his own trauma and doubts. In the next scene, Beth drops a plate, even more clearly showing how everything is going to pieces. She’s losing control. As she talks to her mother, we see how her prejudices against therapy (and Jews) was passed on to Beth, who tries to pass it on to her kids.
On Christmas, the fall-out becomes apparent and Conrad finally says all the truths he has been hiding all the time. It’s interesting to see his parents’ reaction. Beth gets angry and snaps back and relies on societal rules Conrad is breaking, like cursing and losing face in front of a friend. Calvin wants to defend Conrad and is attacked by Beth for it. His main motive is keeping peace, but you can see that he knows Conrad is right and Beth is wrong. He is portrayed as the naïve one who doesn’t want to see the problems, but the most interesting character development is him realizing that he is not happy with the way his life goes. So he starts to break out, as symbolized by him running off alone, away from his colleague, off the path, into the unknown.
He ends up with Dr. Berg and sitting in his car alone thinking, asking his wife uncomfortable questions about her and about the rules of society. The scene, in which he realizes that on his son’s funeral, he wondered about which socks to wear, is heartbreaking and painfully honest about the way our culture makes us ignore our emotions. His wife is baffled. At another conversation she expresses her unwillingness to change, which separates her from the rest of her family. Conrad wants to change and Calvin is slowly waking up too, ready to do things differently. Their “I love you”s are desperate and obviously just pretense. Later, at their last battle, she explicitly shows she’s unable to express love but that it’s okay. “Mothers don’t hate their sons,” she says, as if that unwritten rule makes everything alright. Their society friends just stand next to them, unable to help because their friendship is not build on emotional connections.
The final scenes are heartbreaking and hopeful at the same time. Calvin cannot deal with the fact that Beth is unable to show love. He makes a decision, a change, and it is just being honest to her, finally. He confronts her about their love and she can’t help but only utter phrases. He has lost their love and cries, but she can’t. She can’t show anything and her only reaction is to escape and not to deal with it. But the movie ends on a touching note of hope, as the last words are “I love you” but it’s father and son, hugging, crying, alone now, but honest and emotional. What an unusual ending that is. You could argue that it’s the woman who is shown at fault, but if the father was portrayed as an unemotional control freak, it wouldn’t be less of a cliché. She is not shown as an evil person, but as helpless and alone. Calvin thinks it’s the healthiest way for him and his son to try it without her, and there is nothing wrong with that. Things don’t always work out and for someone like Calvin to accept that, is the real human accomplishment in this movie and also a rebellion against society’s conventions. This is a really good and important movie.