Judge Joel Pearce rather liked this dysfunctional family drama. You can interpret "dysfunctional" as modifying either "family" or "drama."
Life's best journeys take you home.
Safe Passage is a drama about a dysfunctional family dealing with a possible tragedy. This theme has been handled numerous times before in Hollywood, and this film is an average example. It means well, but sometimes the quirkiness of the characters and their relationships get in the way of the story.
Facts of the Case
One night, Margaret Singer (Susan Sarandon, Moonlight Mile) wakes up from a "premonition dream." She knows one of her seven sons will be in danger, but does not know which one. News comes the next day that an explosion has gone off in an American army base in Sinai, where one of Margaret's sons, Percival, is stationed. This news brings the rest of the Singer family together again, where they work out old problems and pain as they wait to hear whether or not Percival has died.
A tragedy in a family has a way of bringing all kinds of problems to the surface, and can ultimately either draw a family together or drive them apart. Many dramas have observed families enduring tragic situations, using that period of grief to explore what it means to live in a family.
Safe Passage approaches the concept from a slightly different angle, looking at a family in a period of possible tragedy, waiting to hear the outcome. It's subtly different from a family dealing with actual grief, which makes the idea interesting to explore. In the case of grief, each family member needs to come to terms with the death of a loved one, and with the guilt and pain that is associated with such a loss. Here, though, the grief is postponed, and each character needs to work through the possibility of that pain, without being certain that the cause of the pain has really happened.
For the most part, the performances are quite solid. Susan Sarandon carries the film with ease, but this is not a new character for her—Sarandon's unconventional, bitter, bizarre mother character has shown up now in so many films that it's easy to forget she has also done a wide variety of other characters. The rest of the performances are similar. Robert Sean Leonard gives the standout performance as Alfred, the almost neurotic eldest son who holds the family together but does not quite belong in the chaotic Singer household.
And it is indeed a chaotic household. There are often several conversations going on between various family members, with the television blasting and loud music from another room—just like home. The film does an excellent job of capturing how it feels to be in a large family. These times of chaos are well contrasted by quiet conversations that develop the past and present problems of this troubled family.
With so many quirky characters to introduce in such a short time, many of them are simply stereotypes, even by the end. The sons can be slotted into types: the smart one, the responsible one, the twins, the baby, the athlete. The film tries to create deep hurts and complex feelings in each of the sons, but they are too typical and over-the-top for their performances to seem sincere. The names of the sons are odd and distracting—Alfred, Percival, Izzy, Gideon, Darren, Merle, and Simon are almost all peculiar names, and I found they pulled me out of the story for too long. The names don't appear to have any kind of significance—they are just strange for strangeness' sake. That's how I felt about the behavior of the characters as well. Many of them seemed to be quirky for the sake of being quirky, not in order to make some larger point. Every member of the family is odd, and while this is much like real life, a strange character needs more development time than a simple one. Trying to do so much in such a short time makes the whole film seem a bit surreal at times.
Much of the problem comes from trying to distill a novel into a short feature film. The characters and their difficult situation needed more breathing room to be understood and appreciated. Given more time with them, I could have grown used to the members of the Singer household and cared more about their personal struggles.
I feel I am being too hard on Safe Passage. The film really does mean well, and it raises a number of important issues. Margaret Singer is faced with the realization that motherhood has taken over her entire life, and although she does not regret having her sons, at the same time she wishes that she could have done more with her life. Margaret's involvement in her sons' lives is interesting as well. She is constantly present and cares deeply for them, but they have not had the space they need in order to grow up and become the men that they could have been. These themes are not lost in the strangeness in the script and performances, but they do not come through as strongly as they should.
The technical quality of the DVD is solid. The picture is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic, and it has aged quite well. The colors are rich and accurate, there is little print damage, and black levels are deep. There are a few artifacts due to a low bitrate, but these are never distracting.
The audio is less impressive. The 5.1 Dolby Digital track focuses too much on the center channel, with little action across the front soundstage and almost none in the surrounds. This is unfortunate, because a more active soundstage would have immersed the viewer into the chaos of the Singer household. The dialogue is always clear, though, so it's not a critical problem—only a disappointment.
Some bonus material would have been nice, but all we get is the theatrical trailer.
Fans of Safe Passage—or sappy dysfunctional family dramas in general—will be quite pleased with this disc. Some others may want to give it a rent, but the film is too flawed to recommend it very highly.
Everyone involved in making this film has put in a good effort, and is acquitted thanks to some good performances and heartfelt direction. New Line has given the film the treatment it deserves, but no more.
Give us your feedback!
Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Theatrical Trailer
Review content copyright © 2004 Joel Pearce; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.