Another handsome, intelligent and well-burnished production from the Hallmark Hall of Fame, “Night Ride Home” is a thoughtful and sensitive examination of how a family copes with grief. Its unwillingness to indulge in melodrama might make it too low-key for tastes accustomed to Hollywood’s crasser and more ubiquitous brand of storytelling, but fans of slice-of-life tales and sentimental, not soppy, stories will find this a gem.
Story centers on a family — self-absorbed Nora (Rebecca De Mornay), stoic and slightly prosaic Neal (Keith Carradine), Everyteen Clea (Thora Birch) and mama’s boy Simon (Jordan Brower). They weather the usual family problems — an unspoken marital rift is evoked with just an expression and a too-pointed line of dialogue; Simon’s school woes, on the other hand, are met with a too-familiar “I’m not mad, just disappointed” from pop. As they live on a glorious farm and raise horses, Neal hits Simon with the strictest punishment imaginable — no horse-riding until his grades come up.
The family’s placid surface, however, is forever disrupted when Nora approves a clandestine equine run for Simon, resulting in a fatal accident. Mourning is depicted in virtual silence — no words can suffice, and, wisely, the writers don’t attempt to fill the space with empty homilies.
The recriminations that follow are less bitter than self-reproachful — everyone blames himself or herself for Simon’s death, for different reasons. Capturing these characters’ battered interior terrains as they keep their deepest wounds to themselves is far trickier than showing wailing and gnashing of teeth, and the result is a far more realistic handling of this material than is usually seen in movies of this sort.
Nora collapses like a wilted orchid, and, after going into a desperate funk, decides she wants to sell off her beloved farm and stable of horses.
Everyone expects her to change her mind, and, in the interim, Nora and family switch homes with her mother, Maggie (Ellen Burstyn). (In any other film, Maggie would be atwitter with tiresome eccentricities and colorful truisms; here, she’s merely given to traveling and sketching.)
Mainly, the remainder of the film is given over to small, random moments that occur along the way as the family slowly pieces together what has been irreparably frayed.
A potential salve comes as Neal is offered a job in Seattle, far from the unhappy memories. But Nora, who has reverted to her self-indulgent ways, blocks the move at the last second after having agreed to it. Neal finally cracks, as a lifetime of gentle acquiescence bitterly erupts from his placid exterior.
Unfortunately, a late scene between Neal and Nora — an ostensible showdown — is perhaps too muted. It’s certainly too truncated — too much history exists between the characters for them to dismiss it all so abruptly.
Rather than a splashy catharsis, the film delivers a series of small, human moments with the cumulative effect being an understanding that healing, credibly and movingly, has begun.
The excellent cast, largely responsible for making this subtle story work, is anchored by Carradine’s stolid yet gripping performance — he’s excellent as the emotionally shut-off Neal, who withers even as he tries to reach through his wife’s morass of grief and reconnect with her. De Mornay, likewise, digs deep and comes up with a character that seems true; Burstyn and Birch competently complement them.
Direction and cinematography capably convey both the emotional gulf separating Neal and Nora and the majesty of the land upon which the tragedy occurs. Other tech credits are similarly well executed.