Based on the novel by Judith Guest, Robert Redford’s directorial debut, Ordinary People (1980) is the story of Conrad Jarrett (Timothy Hutton), a young man emotionally strapped by a guilt complex deriving from his surviving a boating accident that claimed the life of his older brother, Buck (Scott Doebler). After attempting suicide, Conrad finds it difficult to resume his former life either at home or at school. In truth, he always existed in the afterglow of his brother's memory.
Since Buck's death, Conrad's mother, Beth (Mary Tyler-Moore) has become ineffectual, aloof and quite unwilling to accept Conrad for who he is. When Conrad's dad, Calvin (Donald Sutherland) recommends that he visit psychiatrist, Dr. Tyrone C. Berger (Judd Hirsch) Conrad reluctantly agrees much to Beth's chagrin. In truth, Beth is much more concerned about keeping up appearances than she is about the welfare of her younger child.
While in hospital Conrad had befriended Karen Aldrich (Dinah Manoff); another patient recovering from her attempted suicide. But since his return home, Conrad has remained mostly isolated. He is surrounded by memories of Buck that continue to haunt him. Buck's best friend, Joe Lazenby (Fredric Lehne) is sympathetic but to no avail, while Conrad's swim coach, Salan (M Emmett Walsh) is constantly critiquing his performance compared to that of his late brother.
At home, Conrad is in constant conflict with Beth. Although he makes valiant attempts to come to some common ground and understanding with her, Beth rather ruthlessly pushes him away. Calvin decides to take Beth on a vacation, but increasingly begins to realize that there is just no reaching her anymore. She would prefer to forget the past summer ever happened and simply move on with her own life without worrying about Conrad's future recovery.
Eventually, Conrad decides that the best way to rid himself of Buck's memory is to make a clean break of his old life. He takes an interest in fellow student Jeannine Pratt (Elizbeth McGovern) and decides to see Karen one last time in friendship. Regrettably, Conrad is informed by Karen's mother that she committed suicide the night before. Fearing that he will follow the same path whether he wants to or not, Conrad rushes to Dr. Berger's office where he at long last is able to fully confront his demons about the past. Returning home with a renewed resolve, Conrad discovers that Beth has moved out. Father and son console one another on the back porch, the camera optimistically pulling away to reveal a bright sun on the horizon.
There's nothing ordinary about these Ordinary People. The Alvin Sargent/Nancy Dowd screenplay is critical of its characters when it needs to be; illustrating Calvin's inability to keep the family together, Beth's unrelenting determination to find distraction for herself even if it is damaging to the welfare of her family; Conrad's stubborn refusal to let go of his inner torment and accept circumstances as they are.
In his directorial debut, Robert Redford achieves a sustained elegance to all this sad moral decay and decline of a once solid family unit. Yet he avoids the obvious pitfalls of extolling the tragedy per say. The film never veers into melodrama but rides a hard edge between drama and reality. The actors are bearing their souls and their investment exposes their characters' fragmented self-destructive lives.
Timothy Hutton's performance is undoubtedly the most flashy - prone to dramatic fits and tearful soliloquies. But Mary Tyler-Moore is the real revelation. On the surface, her Beth is a hopelessly shallow socialite. Yet her uncaring facade actually masks a terrified and insecure matriarch who realizes she lost the one man in her life - Buck - who meant something to her. Judd Hirsch and Hutton have great on screen chemistry as the doctor/patient who evolve their relationship into a trusting bond during Conrad's breakthrough. Donald Sutherland is spot on as the engaged, though emasculated father, desperately trying to reconnect with his son to save his life.
Paramount Home Video’s DVD is anamorphic widescreen. There is some pixelization, shimmering of fine details and edge enhancement present, and at times all are distracting. Colors are slightly faded. Fine details get lost in a softly focused and grainy image that is unremarkable. The mono audio seems slightly distorted. This is terrible bare bones effort from Paramount - one that ought to be rectified if the film ever gets to Blu-ray which it definitely should.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)