Home Video Hovel- Before and After, by Aaron Pinkston
I was 11-years-old in 1996 when Before and After was released. Needless to say, it wasn’t one that was on my radar at the time. So when the weekly Battleship Pretension reviews available e-mail came out it wasn’t a film I realized even existed. But the prospect of watching a film where Meryl Streep and Liam Neeson star as a married couple dealing with the agony of their young son (Edward Furlong) being a killer quickly made me interested. Also: the other choices were direct to DVD thriller starring Tom Arnold, another director to DVD movie that seems to be about a talking dog (I don’t know if it actually has a talking dog, but that’s how the cover speaks to me) and a movie called Metal Tornado (OK, so I was actually beaten to the punch on that one).
Films about good parents with evil kids will always seem to exist. It is a subgenre so present we see it come up in drama, horror and even comedy. There is something about the fear of creating something that starts so innocent but changes without any personal control that works on such a high level. Before and After doesn’t do anything with the situation you haven’t seen before — though it goes to the lengths of providing the possibility that Jacob isn’t evil, just a regular teen who accidentally, yet brutally killed his girlfriend. Along the way, we hit many of the familiar beats for films like this, with the family tearing apart from the inside while the community turns on the once-respected parents as if they are solely to blame.
Adapted from a book by Rosellen Brown, it feels very much like a novel adaptation — the kind of book you take the the beach or read on the train during the morning commute. Even though the subject is pretty intense and the characters make choices that could warrant long psychological profiles, it is all pretty easy to take — I’m not sure if this is a compliment, probably a flaw to most viewers. To its credit, unlike most novel adaptations of the same kind, it gets to the action quickly, really attacking the film’s premise in a way that you really don’t know where the film could go for the next hour and a half. It does spend a lot of screentime feeling a lot like a family drama over a murder or political thriller, and much of that feels pretty limp. By the conclusion, where Jacob hears his sentence from the court, I didn’t really care what the judgement was.
Obviously, the main draw of seeing Before and After now is its two stars. In 1996, both were at high points in their careers. Neeson a few years removed from his Oscar nominated role in Schindler’s List and Streep was nominated the previous year for The Bridges of Madison County. When you have two super heavyweight actors like Streep and Neeson on screen, sometimes you just need to sit back, let them take the reins and do what they do. Being this type of thriller, there is a lot of room for Neeson to be gruff and Streep to be a worrisome motherly figure, types of roles they could play in their sleep. Seeing them on screen together just plain works — they have chemistry, they have the weighty material to have the big acting moments. They even have an awkward sex scene! Outside of the two leads, we also get Edward Furlong in the type of role he can play (creepy teenager) and a who’s-who of character actors in smaller roles, Alfred Molina, Daniel von Bargen and John Heard.
With these two actors in place, the film also has a more-than suitable director in Barbet Schroeder. In the mid-90s there were few filmmakers who would be more appropriate for a murder-mystery-thrill like this, coming off of Reversal of Fortune and Single White Female. Unfortunately, Schroeder doesn’t bring much style, which is probably a main contributor as to why the film hasn’t really been remembered over the years. There are a few nice sequences, but a lot of the film either has no drama or has to completely lie on the shoulders of its actors.
I’m not sure why Before and After is just now coming on Blu-Ray — it’s not exactly the type of pre-Blu-Ray film that needs the format. It’s a non-exceptional, small actor’s film that can easily take up a Sunday early afternoon while folding laundry or any other mindless choir (if this hasn’t played as a weekend matinee on WGN, I would be incredibly surprised). The lone supplement on the disc is the theatrical trailer, so there’s that. I wouldn’t discourage you from seeing Before and After, but it’s a must-buy only for Meryl Streep-Liam Neeson completists or those people who don’t realize their Blu-Ray player can also play DVDs.