An eerie, enigmatic, intellectual romantic tragedy about a rising politician haunted by memories of his murdered love, "Waking the Dead" touches a raw nerve with its remarkably visceral emotional intensity.
Absolutely gripping from its very first frame, the film begins in 1974 with a young Fielding Pierce (Billy Crudup) being torn apart from the inside out as he watches news coverage of a car-bombing that killed his peace activist girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly).
Although the movie has yet to reveal anything discernible about these two people, simply watching Crudup shake uncontrollably in an eruption of tears is enough to take hold of your empathy and ride it like a rodeo mustang through the heartbreak and borderline dementia that bedevil him throughout the story's decade span.
Sliding forward and back effortlessly between two time periods, "Waking the Dead" tracks both Fielding's profoundly moving, cerebral and spiritual romance with Sarah (Connelly) in the years before her death, and his growing obsession with ephemeral visions of her 10 years later as he's being groomed for a seat in Congress.
In 1972-74, Fielding is still a determined idealist, building a radiant, devoted relationship with Sarah, who has dedicated herself to a sanctuary movement in war-torn Chile. Turned on by each other's intellects and convictions, Crudup and Connelly powerfully portray the most transcendentally realistic and enviable screen love since Anthony Minghella's "Truly, Madly, Deeply" (coincidentally also about clinging to the ghost of a dead lover). Their flirting, their philosophical give-and-take, and even their arguments are Byronic and utterly absorbing.
But without Sarah to keep him grounded, by 1982 Fielding has become a ziggurat-climbing district attorney, hand-picked by the governor to run in a special election for a disgraced senator's abandoned office. Now colder and almost perfunctory, he's on the verge of losing his soul to the machine when he begins having visions of Sarah that shake him to his core and threaten his sanity.
Adapted from the novel by Scott Spencer and directed by Keith Gordon ("Mother Night," "A Midnight Clear") -- who has a gift for combining themes of psychological taxation, political conflict and inexorable passion -- this complex, engrossing film is masterful about putting us inside Fielding's broken-mirror mind.
Gordon subtly blankets 1982 with snow and rain, painting scenes in chilling, wet blues and grays to reflects Fielding's mental state as his phantom-chasing undermines his campaign and his relationship with the networking daughter (Molly Parker) of his political mentor (Hal Holbrook).
The director has enough confidence in Crudup ("The Hi-Lo Country," "Without Limits") to let the hitherto under-appreciated actor take his character to exhausting depths of grief and delusion. He also plants long-haired brunettes in scene after scene to keep the audience subconsciously looking for Sarah, building a strong empathy with Fielding.
In contrast, the '70s scenes are a warm, vivid, golden brown, and Gordon sees to it they're driven by Sarah's influence.
Finally given the opportunity to play a character of substance and not a period picture glamourpuss, Connelly gives the best performance of her career in this pivotal role. Full of longing, affection, brilliance, wit and a touch of naiveté, she is sexier and more appealing here as a boho intellectual in jeans and a poncho than she ever was dolled up in sultry silk gowns and come-hither lipstick for "The Rocketeer," "Mulholland Falls" or "Dark City."
"Waking the Dead" is so compelling, devastatingly romantic and uncanny that I could go on for pages about just, say, the volumes of symbolism or the extraordinarily unaffected dialogue. The movie's most intimate scene is a single three-and-a-half minute take of Fielding and Sarah quarreling on a subway train.
My copious notes are filled with stuff I'm dying to cram into this review.
Instead, I'll leave all that wonder for you to discover and just note my singular but significant reservation:
Gordon gets so deep inside Fielding's psyche that doubts about Sarah's death linger over the film, raising unpleasant questions about her morals and motives, should she really be alive.
In accommodating this twist, the story loses its abstract atmosphere at a crucial moment, taking a jarring emotional detour before Gordon steers back toward the necessary ambiguity.
Run time: 105 mins
In Theaters: Friday 24th March 2000
Box Office Worldwide: $327.4 thousand
Distributed by: USA Home Entertainment
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 51%
Fresh: 28 Rotten: 27
IMDB: 6.7 / 10
Director: Keith Gordon
Starring: Billy Crudup as Fielding Pierce, Jennifer Connelly as Sarah Williams, Paul Hipp as Danny Pierce, Hal Holbrook as Isaac Green, Ivonne Coll as Gisela Higgens, Lawrence Dane as Governor Kinosis, Ed Harris as Jerry Charmichael, Janet McTeer as Caroline Pierce, Molly Parker as Juliet Beck, Larry Marshall as Angelo Bertelli, Stanley Anderson as Fielding's Father, Bruce Dinsmore as Tony Dayton, Mimi Kuzyk as Adele Green, Sandra Oh as Kim