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"I think he was the love of my life."
I'll admit, I was sort of gunning for The Greatest before I saw it. The film's subject matter—a family grieving for a dead son—set my cynicism radar off. What I was in for, I thought, was a manipulative, overly sentimental weepie. After watching the film, however, I was happy to find myself proven (mostly) wrong.
The Greatest refers to Bennett Brewer (Aaron Johnson, Kick-Ass), a popular 18-year-old adored by his friends and family. After making love with long-time crush Rose (Carey Mulligan, An Education), Bennett ill-advisedly stops his car in the middle of the road to proclaim his feelings, and is killed by an oncoming truck.
Each of Bennett's family deals with his loss in different ways. His father Allen (Pierce Brosnan, The Matador) takes a stiff-upper-lip approach and internalizes his grief. His wife Grace (Susan Sarandon, The Lovely Bones) regularly visits the driver of the truck that killed Bennett, who lies in a coma. According to surveillance footage, Bennett lived for 17 minutes after the accident and had a conversation with the driver. It becomes Grace's mission to learn what was said. Finally, Bennett's younger brother Ryan (Johnny Simmons, Jennifer's Body) turns to drugs, and later a grief support group.
Three months after Bennett's death, Rose turns up at the Brewers' doorstep, pregnant with Bennett's child. She has decided to keep the baby, and says she has nowhere else to go (a dubious claim that reeks of contrivance). Allen forms a bond with the young woman, but Grace will have nothing to do with her, at one point even declaring, "It should have been her that died that night."
Rose's showing up at the Brewers' house seems too convenient, but The Greatest isn't really focused on her; it's about how four different people (Rose included) deal with the loss of the same person. These depictions are handled very well by writer-director Shana Feste, who gives her characters (or at least most of them) powerful and believable responses to the tragedy. And while this material could have been overwrought and operatically handled, Feste sidesteps these pitfalls for the most part, although the end of the film is too pat, silly and hard to buy for my tastes. Feste shows her understanding of the need for subtlety and quiet moments early on, when we see Grace, Allen and Ryan in a limo following the funeral. The single shot, which contains no dialogue, goes on for about two minutes. No hysterical screams, no wrenching sobs, just three people sitting silently in their own worlds of grief.
Although none of what follows this scene is able to match it in simplicity and power, there's still a lot to like in this movie. The bond that forms between Allen and Rose is surprisingly believable, as is Grace's obsession with learning about her son's last 17 minutes. In both cases, the actors deserve a lot of credit. Brosnan's accent doesn't quite sound American (although to be fair, I don't think his character's nationality is ever touched on), but he's still very effective as a man struggling mightily to deal with a terrible loss. Sarandon is also quite good here, playing a difficult character who is prone to sobbing upon waking up in the morning and, at one point, paces the halls in a panic, looking for a nonexistent lost baby.
Anyone who has seen An Education knows Carey Mulligan's talent, which makes it all the more unfortunate that her character in The Greatest is so underwritten. We learn almost nothing about Rose beyond her relationship with Bennett, and even once she moves into the Brewers' home, little is revealed. As Bennett's brother, Johnny Simmons is very effective, especially when he breaks down during a group meeting. Jennifer Ehle (Pride and Glory) has a small role as a former mistress of Allen's who tries to get through to him, and Michael Shannon has one scene of dialogue as the driver of the truck that killed Bennett.
The Greatest has a solid DVD transfer, effectively conveying the film's warm but muted color palette. The Dolby 5.1 surround track is modest but acceptable for a film of this nature, although the musical score seems almost too quiet at times. For extras, there are six deleted scenes that run about 16 minutes total, all which were wisely snipped. There is also 30 minutes' worth of interviews with Feste, Brosnan, Mulligan, and Simmons, in which they talk about how they came to be involved in the project, what working with Susan Sarandon was like, etc. The film's trailer is also included.
Not everything in The Greatest works, but what does can be very moving. The actors acquit themselves admirably, and Shana Feste does an admirable job of showing different manifestations of grief, making The Greatest worth a rental.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: E1 Entertainment
• Deleted Scenes
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