An awkward synthesis of autism as a clinical problem and family abuse as a social issue, Bruce Beresford's "Silent Fall" is a well-crafted murder mystery that unfortunately is short on excitement and genuine suspense. Lack of dazzling star power, downbeat word-of-mouth and competition from several major films in the next two weeks will likely spell box office disappointment for Warners' earnest psychological drama.

An awkward synthesis of autism as a clinical problem and family abuse as a social issue, Bruce Beresford’s “Silent Fall” is a well-crafted murder mystery that unfortunately is short on excitement and genuine suspense. Lack of dazzling star power, downbeat word-of-mouth and competition from several major films in the next two weeks will likely spell box office disappointment for Warners’ earnest psychological drama.

Richard Dreyfuss plays Jake Rainer, a once-prominent psychiatrist whose successful work with autistic children drew on his unique mix of warmth, humor and personal methods. But a disastrous incident, for which he was indicted and then acquitted, has made him a man haunted by guilt and anguish, one who refuses to practice — or share intimacy with his wife — anymore.

Jake is forced out of his professional and emotional stupor when a bizarre double murder occurs. There are no obvious clues, but there are two witnesses: Tim Warden (Ben Faulkner), an autistic 9-year-old boy, and his overly protective sister Sylvie (Liv Tyler).

At first, he’s reluctant to get involved, which gives his wife (Linda Hamilton) plenty of ammunition for accusing him of being a failure. It’s only when his rival, the stern Dr. Harlinger (John Lithgow), subjects Tim to his notorious authoritarian treatment that Jake takes the child under his wing.

The first — and more interesting — part of the narrative focuses on the symptoms of autism. As is often the case with such movies, Jake provides all kinds of medical explanations so that

every viewer will understand what autism is or isn’t.

Some viewers are likely to find these meticulously observed sequences, in which Tim speaks in different voices or reacts in unpredictable manner, not terribly absorbing.

However, after an hour or so, pic changes gears and turns into a rather conventional thriller. As such, it depends on offering twists and revelations, and the chief problem is that the film provides so many clues that it’s possible to unravel the killer’s identity long before the finale.

Helmer Beresford, who has made forceful courtroom (“Breaker Morant”) and social issue (“Driving Miss Daisy”) movies, shows smooth adeptness with the requirements of the suspense genre. As always, though, he’s more interested in character development than plot, which here gets progressively contrived.

Dreyfuss renders one of his more restrained and effective performances. Holding the entire picture together, he has some excellent moments in his one-to-one interactions with the kid.

It’s refreshing to see Hamilton in a non-action pic, but she’s handed a thankless role whose main purpose is to remind Jake that he’s a quitter. Tyler and Faulkner, two attractive newcomers, are well cast as the troubled siblings.

Technical input shows prowess in all quarters, particularly Peter James’ crisp lensing of Maryland’s countryside and John Stoddart’s impressive production design.

“Silent Fall” doesn’t sentimentalize autistic children, but, like “Rain Man,” it trivializes autism for entertainment purposes.

Silent Fall

Production

A Warners Bros. release of a Morgan Creek Production. Produced by James G. Robinson. Executive producer, Gary Barber. Co-producers, Penelope L. Foster, Jim Kouf and Lynn Bigelow. Directed by Bruce Beresford. Screenplay, Akiva Goldsman.

Crew

Camera (Duart, prints by Technicolor), Peter James; editor, Ian Crafford; music, Stewart Copeland; production design, John Stoddart; art direction, David Bomba; set decoration, Patty Malone; costume design, Colleen Kelsall; sound (Dolby), Chris Newman; assistant director, Katterli A. Frauenfelder; casting, Shari Rhodes, Joseph Middleton. Reviewed at Hamptons Film Festival, Oct. 23, 1994. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 100 min.

With

Jake Rainer - Richard Dreyfuss
Karen Rainer - Linda Hamilton
Dr. Harlinger - John Lithgow
Sheriff Mitch Rivers - J.T. Walsh
Tim Warden - Ben Faulkner
Sylvie Warden - Liv Tyler
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