This long-awaited second feature from director Tom Kalin, who made such an impression way back in 1992 with the Leopold and Loeb retelling Swoon, comfortably nestles up against its predecessor with regards to categorization: it’s a true crime movie, involving sex, horrific murder and characters with deeply pretentious ambitions, and it’s as queer as any movie can hope to be, with its personage mixing in all sorts of combinations untraditional, kinky, or downright deviant.
Besides apparently being exactingly tailored to the thematic interests of prolific producer Christine Vachon (an instrumental force behind Swoon, Boys Don’t Cry, I Shot Andy Warhol, Party Monster, The Notorious Bettie Page and Infamous), it’s the sort of material that also seems to draw in some of our finest actresses of a certain age, especially those who continually crave adventure and edge. Given that Joan Crawford is long gone, I can’t think of a better choice for the star role of Savage Grace than Julianne Moore—yet at the same time I think it might just be the worst, or at least the least enjoyable performance I’ve ever seen Moore give. But then, are we even supposed to enjoy this movie? Even the somber enjoyment of more closely understanding some bleak, troubling aspect of human nature?
Narrated by the real Tony Baekeland, Savage Grace dramatizes the story of his life leading up to his notorious arrest in 1972 at the age of 25. It says a lot about Baekeland’s life that the real star of his story is actually his mom, Barbara (Moore), heiress to the Bakelite fortune, an uncultured, desperately unhappy society woman who, after being abandoned by her understandably demoralized husband (Stephen Dillane) for her son’s girlfriend, focuses all of her overbearing energies on her only child, who she constantly needles, travels all over Europe with, lives with and, as it turns out, has sex with. Tony himself (played by the suitably stunned-looking Eddie Redmayne, once more, as in The Good Shepherd, the psychologically under-developed son) is rather a wisp of a boy next to her, nervous, uncertain, largely unloved and internalizing more rage than most of us will ever know.
For those of us who aren’t survivors of incest but always suspected it made for a pretty miserable home life, Savage Grace, the antithesis of Murmur of the Heart in more ways than one, certainly confirms that and some. But I suppose what’s truly terrifying in this utterly tawdry tale is not the aberrant sex itself but the suffocating mothering from which the sex is but one manifestation, and hardly the most toxic. Savage Grace is really a sort of horror movie about the stifling effects of family and affluence, one beautifully photographed in exquisite locales and filled with beautiful people, where the monster just keeps coming back to embarrass herself and everybody else with her incredibly awkward attempts to seem sophisticated before throwing yet another shrill hissy fit.
I didn’t actually know Baekeland’s story before seeing Savage Grace, which is just as well—at least there were some surprises. But these surprises, like Kalin’s craftsmanship, itself a bit overdone and noodlely, didn’t make Baekeland’s story any more enlightening, just grotesque, sad, jarring, intermittently fascinating and ultimately kind of pointless.