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A talented acting ensemble plays effectively against type in Michael Shannon’s quietly powerful directorial debut, none more so than Judy Greer, outwardly numb with pain but raw within as a mother whose son shot and killed three high school classmates . While the topic inevitably invites comparison with Massthat well-received 2021 chamber piece — also a feature debut by actor, Fran Kranz — focused on two sets of parents on either side of a similar tragedy. Eric LaRue takes a broader look, encompassing the broader community and religious leaders who tinker or manipulate the healing conversation.
Shannon’s deep roots in Chicago theater are evident in her choice of material and her success in assembling a first-rate cast, unusually strong across the board for a modestly sized indie like this.
Intense and engaging.
Place: Tribeca Film Festival (fiction spotlight)
Launch: Judy Greer, Alexander Skarsgard, Paul Sparks, Alison Pill, Tracy Letts, Annie Parisse, Kate Arrington, Marylouise Burke, Nation Sage Henrikson
Screenwriter: Brett Neveu, based on his play
1 hour and 59 minutes
The screenplay was adapted by Brett Neveu from his play of the same name, which premiered in 2002 at A Red Orchid Theatre, co-founded by Shannon. Reserve a supporting role choice as a fanatical religious leader for Steppenwolf star Tracy Letts, author of two plays in which Shannon originated roles, Killer Joe AND Insect. The cast also includes the director’s wife and fellow Windy City vet, Kate Arrington, as well as her close friend and frequent castmate Paul Sparks and his wife, Annie Parisse.
In another key link, Jeff Nichols, who directed Shannon in Shotgun stories, Take cover, Mud, Midnight special, Loving and the next inside The bikersserves as executive producer.
Greer plays Janice LaRue, first seen sitting in her parked car, her face a mask of anxiety as she musters the will to enter the supermarket in an unidentified small town.
As she wanders the halls like a zombie, Janice is surprised by cheerful First Presbyterian pastor Steve Calhan (Sparks), who kindly encourages her to come to church whenever she feels ready to talk. Alluding to the cloud hanging heavily in the air following the murders committed by her son Eric (Nation Sage Henrikson), whom Janice has yet to visit during her months in prison, Steve tells her, “You should try to think beyond what it happened. Try to think about what will come next.
This is in essence what the film is about: the struggle to move forward after a crippling life mishap and the often misguided advice of concerned strangers who attempt to offer answers to unanswered questions and balms for incurable pain.
At home, Janice is urged by her husband Ron (Alexander Skarsgard) to seek spiritual refuge at the Redeemer, the upbeat church he recently joined, led by motivational preacher Bill Verne (Letts, who wields subtly overbearing authority). But Ron’s Sunday School-like sermons — all of “Let Jesus into your heart” and “Jesus will take away your burdens” and the laying on of hands — increasingly irritate his wife, who doesn’t need simplistic solutions.
Ron’s religious fervor is fueled by the friendship of a fellow Redeemer worshiper who is in charge of human resources at the company where he works, Lisa, played with a frighteningly extravagant zeal and a hint of sexual temptation by a formidable Alison Pill.
Lisa’s inspired speeches in the car as she drives Ron home from group prayer meetings or inappropriate exchanges at the office somehow make her an even more dubious source of help than Bill. However, the latter’s reminder to Ron of scriptural teachings about the prescribed roles of male dominance and female submission in a family further widens the chasm that opens between Ron and Janice.
The film takes a close look at Janice as she recalls moments from Eric’s childhood or undertakes the traumatic task of tidying up his bedroom, whose door seems to have been locked for months as a constant, confronting reminder.
She also experiences the unease of the community around her when Jack (Lawrence Grimm, another co-founder of Red Orchid), her department head at the local hardware store where she works – well stocked with an array of firearms – insists that take extended leave. “If you stare too long into the abyss, the abyss looks into you,” he tells her, in what sounds less like a warning than a fait accompli.
But the main dramatic momentum is built around the conflicting attempts of pastors Steve and Bill to orchestrate a meeting between the LaRues and the mothers of the murdered youths. Ron makes clumsy attempts to establish the law, ordering Janice to go along with the plan at the Redeemer, where one of the mothers, Laura Gates (Jennifer Engstrom), speaks in tongues and spends the services in an ecstatic trance.
Janice ignores her husband’s wishes and goes ahead with Steve’s meetings. These are attended by bereaved mothers Jill (Arrington), whose coping mechanism seems to be something of an absence; and Stephanie (Parisse), who barely hides the rage simmering inside her, especially when Janice expresses her own anger or frustration. Steve’s well-meaning but awkward amateur psychology only inflames these situations.
One of the questions Shannon’s film asks with both skepticism and honest contemplation is whether turning to God in such circumstances is helpful or simply aggravates the isolation and helplessness.
Ultimately, the cathartic step for Janice lies not in finding forgiveness or any kind of peace through the victims’ mothers, but in mustering the resolve to visit Eric in prison. In that tense and expertly acted encounter, she expresses remorse but rejects her mother’s attempts at comfort and understanding, closing the film on a note of haunting ambiguity.
There is no escaping the fact that Eric Laru it’s a depressing look, but it’s a work of considered intelligence and restraint, elegantly reprized and graced with a startling score by Jonathan Mastro full of dissonant strings that often evoke a sense of snapping nerves.
Above all, it is beautifully acted. It’s especially interesting to watch Skarsgard reduce his natural magnetism to play an unsophisticated milquetoast with a bad haircut and a styleless dad’s uniform, his weakness guiding him towards easy solutions. And Sparks is every bit as compelling as a man of the cloth who deep down seems to know that his popular style of mediation has little effect. It’s also nice to see New York stage darling Marylouise Burke appear in a small role.
But Greer’s is the performance that keeps you riveted — stony at times, emotionally squeezed elsewhere or empty or exhausted beyond description, a bleeding wound for which there’s probably no Band-Aid.