All the Answers That I Know
Grace (Susan Sarandon) leans forward, her eyes wide and wet. The policeman on the other side of his desk leans away. She’s seen the intersection camera footage of her son’s car accident, and she’s sure the driver of the other car, Jordan Walker (Michael Shannon), spoke with Bennett (Aaron Johnson). She’s learned that Bennett lived for 17 minutes following the crash, and she’s desperate to know what he said, how he felt, what he knew in those previous last moments. Walker’s now in a coma though, and she needs the cop to tell her when he thinks he’ll wake up. The officer sighs and stands to signal the conversation is over—again. As he’s said before, “I’ve given you all the answers that I know.”
Grace’s grief is overwhelming at the start of The Greatest. Bennett was her firstborn son, a recent high school graduate on his way to Berkeley. His death was so sudden, so senseless: he had stopped his car in an intersection for no clear reason, and Walker’s vehicle slammed into it. You know what Grace doesn’t, that Bennett stopped the car to tell his new girlfriend that he loved her. You’ve seen the sweet lovemaking scene that preceded that romantic and very bad decision, you’ve seen that Rose (Carey Mulligan) looked at Bennett with earnest affection. And you’ve seen that Rose—her arm in a post-accident sling—arrived late to the funeral, and had no interaction with Grace, only a brief exchange of glances with Bennett’s father, a math professor named Allen (Pierce Brosnan), and his younger brother, Ryan (Johnny Simmons).
All these impressions of Rose prepare you for what Grace can’t anticipate—that this lovely girl who adored Bennett is pregnant with his child. When she arrives on the in-laws’ doorstep with the news that she has no money and nowhere to live, they respond predictably differently: he invites Rose to stay, encouraged to have some connection to his son, and she’s furious, determined to grieve without a distraction that may or may not be telling the truth about Bennett’s last night on earth.
Rose was Bennett’s classmate, on her way to Barnard on a scholarship, artsy and bright and sensitive. She makes all this clear when she moves into the bedroom his parents give her, draping golden-hued sheets over the window seat so she has her very own little safe-and-pretty space in her strange new home. Here she huddles with a baby book she uses to keep photos of her evolving body, notes on her dead boyfriend’s background and her fast-shifting life.
In fact, Shana Feste’s film grants a series of separate spaces to Bennett’s survivors. While Grace begins sitting at Walker’s bedside at the hospital, reading to him, insisting that the nurse keep window blinds open so he can feel the sunlight, and Allen tries very hard to shut out the very accommodating blond colleague (Cara Seymour, admirably low-key amid an ensemble of broader performances) with whom he had a brief affair, Ryan heads off to a grief group. Here he remains mostly silent, keeping inside his anger at his brother—for being perfect and for dying. Like Timothy Hutton in Ordinary People, he’s got guilt too, which he doesn’t quite work out via drug use (because he has a history, his parents test him every two weeks, a ritual he both resents and values as a sign of their attention).
As the family watches Rose’s belly grow, each member must come to some sort of peace with the loss and the new life. The movie never quite recovers from this gimmicky premise: the resolution is pretty much foregone and the histrionics to get there are equally predictable. Can it be a surprise to anyone that Rose overhears Grace battering Allen over his attentions to the girl, enraged that she’s taking up emotional room Grace is so anxious to own? “I don’t want this baby, Allen, I don’t care if I sound horrible!” she blurts, He agrees, she does sound that way. She’s ready for that too, aware of the allotment to grievers: “Don’t I have a right to tell you how I’m feeling?”
It doesn’t help that this scene is set in the gynecologist’s waiting room, so Rose is slammed from one side of her emotional scale to the other—happy to see the baby girl is fine and then instantly devastated to hear grandmother be so selfish and brutal (you get one guess as to what she does when she hears it). The staging of most other scenes is similarly contrived: Rose and Allen find a connection on a sunny boardwalk (and then again at a keg party, where this math professor confesses to her that he remembers everyone’s “numbers,” birth dates, due dates, days of life—something like a charming affect, as well as a sign that he pays attention in his own way); Ryan discovers a difficult truth at a very wealthy friend’s estate, so that he’s literally unable to get out a huge driveway gate when he’s most impelled to escape.
Of all such forced-meaningful settings, the most egregious is the last, when at last Grace sees her errors and admits to Rose that she’s sorry after all her selfish meanness. Rose is dressed in verdant green, stumbling through the woods near the site of the accident (where, her best friend has leaked the news, she spends her afternoons—one grieving ritual the film has not underscored with treacly score). Her new family rushes after her, worried that her water has broken (this because she’s revealed, “The most horrible stuff just came out of my body: on the bus!”). When at last they catch up to her, the men watch as the women work it out: gazing on the mother of her grandchild from the other side of a conveniently located small tree. The branches frame Grace exquisitely as she makes her most mundane apology (“I’m sorry for what happened between us, I really am”). The reconciliation is too tidy by half. And you’re left hoping the police officer will make another appearance, reminding everyone that there are just some answers that can’t be known.