An erstwhile soldier, Stanley Phillips (John Cusack) makes the most of the small bit of turf he now commands. A dedicated section manager at a Minnesota hardware superstore, he gets his team ready each day with a bit of military hoo-hah. As he and the other employees shuffle off to their shelf-stocking and inventory-taking assignments, he’s also aware of his primary mission, to care for his two young daughters until his wife, Grace, an Army sergeant, comes home from Iraq.
As its title suggests, however, the careful, compelling melodrama Grace Is Gone focuses on what happens when she does not return. The loss is both gradual and sudden, as Stanley early on attends a military spouses’ support group and then must face the horrifying appearance of two uniformed officers at his front door. The first scene suggests his discomfort on too many levels to count. Surrounded by women raucously recounting the special sex they enjoyed on the nights before their husbands’ departures for the Middle East, he sits quietly, not wanting to give up “personal” information. When at last the women confront Stanley, pressing him for details, all he can say is “Grace and I had a nice time.” Oh, they commiserate, it must have been hard. Oh no, he reassures them, “It wasn’t hard,” inciting titters and arched eyebrows. He sighs: “I was just proud.”
The second, but certainly not the last, moment of loss in writer-director James C. Strouse’s film again emphasizes Stanley’s social awkwardness, as well as his determination to see his wife’s service as an extension of his own belief system. As the officers go through the usual dispensing of information, Stanley loses his sense of the world, the soundtrack falling out, the camera pressing in on his face, drained and anguished. Promising that a Casualty Assistance Officer will stop by later, one of the news deliverers adds, “Any man who’s ever been a soldier shares in your grief.” Yes, and so what? Stanley sends the men away, insisting that he’s fine.
The darkly, impossibly personal pain of Grace’s death looms over Stanley as he plans how to tell 12-year-old Heidi (Shelan O’Keefe) and eight-year-old Dawn (Gracie Bednarczyk). As he sits, pondering, the phone rings: it’s a coworker, wondering where he is, but Stanley hardly hears the message, as it follows Grace’s voice on the answering machine, announcing both her presence and absence, a trace of her already receding memory. The first time, Stanley’s face tells you everything, Cusack’s performance suggesting a tight knot of repressed responses. The film, unfortunately, will resort to this answering machine gimmick repeatedly, as Stanley will go on to call home not only to hear her voice, but also to plead with her for answers, for a way to “tell the girls.”
His first step is avoidance. When Heidi and Dawn come home, he takes them out for dinner, changes his mind, then announces they’re on their way to Enchanted Gardens, a theme park in Florida. Heidi is mortified, immediately concerned that she’ll miss school and worse, that her father is behaving irresponsibly. It’s clear immediately that she has filled in for Grace in some measure, and that Stanley’s sense of priorities and capacity for affection are slightly off. “We’re going to get into trouble,” she worries, more than once. Still, Dawn is excited, Stanley means well, and, well, he is her dad, so Heidi agrees: they hunker down in their Chevy Blazer and the road trip commences.
While this narrative device is not news, it does allow for an intensive focus on Grace’s survivors, each finding his or her own way through the thicket of obligation, distrust, and loss that has suddenly obscured their views of one another and themselves. As Stanley weaves his way around telling his beloved girls what he knows he will, Heidi listens to his occasional lapses in truth and wonders, not suspecting what he’s actually hiding and disdaining his clumsy efforts to cover up—something. As they travel against a transitory backdrop of strip malls, rest stops, and motels, the family members avoid talking and find their voices.
Their first stop is Stanley’s mom’s house: she’s not there, but his brother John (Alessandro Nivola) is asleep on the couch. While the girls are thrilled to see their uncle, Stanley and John plainly share a history of mutual sibling resentments and, especially, political disagreements. The visit occasions some discussion that lays out Stanley’s struggles with what it means to be a man and how conventional assertions of patriotism frame that definition. Not knowing that Grace is dead, John indicts Stanley’s support of the war, initiated by “that manly boy president of yours,” then suggests that his desire not to “confuse” the girls by discussing the war at the dinner table is in fact Stanley’s own evasion; Heidi and Dawn, John asserts, know more than their dad acknowledges, and Heidi even has her own, somewhat informed opinions.
Ironically urging his brother to “let them think for themselves,” John also admits to Heidi that he’s drawn such disdain because he hasn’t quite found his own way. “Why don’t you and dad like each other?” she asks. “We’re just different,” sighs John, at once admiring his brother’s family and resenting his seeming inability to “talk” with his family.
Heidi’s own journey is equally complex, as she watches her father and uncle argue, considers how they define themselves, and she wonders as well how her mother copes with a world of men. Heidi’s coming to herself, to an awareness of the world that includes rebellion (a secret cigarette in a motel parking lot, a brief exchange of looks with a slightly older boy) as well as to her responsibilities to Dawn, is a process delicately watched over by her father. And this is, most subtly, Grace Is Gone‘s abiding theme, the ways that overwhelming loss bring into focus what remains, as well as the cultural frameworks by which moral judgments are made. As much as Stanley tries to be a standard army man, he is, in fact, a gentle, generous, vulnerable soul, wanting more than anything to nurture his girls but also naïve concerning his own limits—as a man, Grace’s widower, and his daughters’ father. As he finds these, he also finds himself.