It is not easy to pinpoint exactly what it is that makes Waking The Dead so haunting. Its tone, theme, dialogue, colours and pace definitely do not help in forgetting about this film once you’ve seen it. But what makes it persistently linger in your mind for days and months after you’ve crossed paths with it, is unquestionably the acting. Billy Crudup and Jennifer Connelly make it impossible to believe they’re faking it. Rather, you convince yourself as the movie progresses that you are watching something you’re not supposed to be seeing and you have a place in something really personal. You humour yourself into thinking you play an invisible part in what they are going through and you have some kind of saying.
Released in 2000, the film tells the deep love story of Fielding Pierce and Sarah Williams. The movie is based on Scott Spencer’s 1986 novel which beautifully deals with the spiritual love that the two protagonists share as well as everything that separates them. Robert Dillon (The River, Ruby Cairo) signs the screenplay and Keith Gordon (A Midnight Clear, The Chocolate War) directs. They both do an amazing work in creating an idealistic film that brings the hippy close to the political activist, only to take them apart again after the experiment has ended.
Fielding is an idealist, a young man who believes in a better world which he deems possible through solid, see-through politics. Sarah seeks change through religion. Fielding wants to be the President of the United States. Sarah just managed to give up on the idea that she won’t be a nun after all. Fielding sees religion as the root of all evil. And Sarah sees politics as a bunch of corrupt war loving criminals. This is what makes it so infuriating loving each other sometimes.
The ending is revealed from the beginning, but still nothing is spoiled. Although the story starts with Sarah’s death, a series of much more painful and crazy events follow which make her death seems like a non issue. Sarah returns, or rather she never left. Whether as a human being or as a ghost, the audience will never know, she’s here when she’s not supposed to be. And what is so sadly optimistic is Fielding’s obsession to keep her alive and around him. She’s there throughout everything he does and it is up to you to decide whether she is there physically or in Fielding’s mind. In either case, you are just happy to see them together.
The timeline keeps shifting from the colourful seventies to the awkward eighties and from romance and companionship to loneliness and heartbreak. The soundtrack and the film’s overall direction work closely together to make this work, and a fun, warm and nostalgic atmosphere keeps giving place to a stern, cold and eerie feel that ultimately drives the central character to doubt, regret and panic. At this point Billy Crudup/Fielding gives his family/audience one of the most real and truthful monologues ever written and one of the most skilfully performed moments we have ever come across in cinema.
“There’s something that I think I should tell you all. I’m not feeling very well. And I haven’t been for a while. Something inside me has jumped the track. I’m confused. I’m not thinking right. I’m not sleeping right. And I- Just don’t think I am complaining about this or asking for your help. Because there’s nothing anyone can do about it. It’s just happened and that’s all there is to it. But I don’t know what I’m going to say from one minute to the next. I really don’t. I don’t know what I’m going to say and I don’t know what I’m going to do. Do you understand that? And I know this is coming at a bad time for everyone but there’s nothing I can do about that. I’m tired and I’m- I don’t see things the way that I used to. Everything, everything, everything is fucking strange and it’s all completely out of control and I’m frightened. And maybe if you all could give me some real help, you know? That would be- And not your pity or generosity but some help; Take a look at me. I know that I am ruining everything but I can’t- If I don’t say this now I may never say it. Everything is going very fast. It’s going very, very fast. It’s completely out of control. And if I don’t say it today, tomorrow may be too late. I may be too crazy to even know how crazy I am. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do. Something has happened to me and I’m very lost. And it doesn’t stop. It’s not getting better. I don’t get better. I’m not getting better. It’s just going on and it’s going on. And there’s nothing that I can do about it. It’s not stopping. It’s not stopping”.
Spencer’s novel offers a highly engaging story and its adaptation for the screen is incredibly well-written. Gordon’s direction is taking the script where it always intended on going and although he might be leaving a few uncovered spots here and there, he also leaves open the possibility for this to be a ghost story. In which case, all fuzzy corners are acceptable. But there is mainly one thing that stands out more than anything else. Billy Crudup as Fielding Pierce and Jennifer Connelly as Sarah Williams, are both revelations. Highly compelling, incredibly dynamic, believable and powerful. They work as a team and they create something so real that when Waking The Dead ends you wonder what hit you.