For a film devoted to investigating the complex repercussions of a sudden family death, The Greatest may be far too transparent in its bids for audience emotion, but until the cheap sentiment of its finale, it feels like a generally honest look at the grieving process, which it allows to unfold at its own unhurried pace. When suburban golden boy and recent high school graduate Bennett (Aaron Johnson) is killed after stopping his car in the middle of a deserted road to confess his love to his girlfriend and being summarily smashed by an oncoming vehicle, his whole family is predictably thrown into disarray. While the deceased’s mother, Grace (Susan Sarandon), obsesses over the details of Bennett’s death, even to the point of regularly visiting the now comatose man who drove into him in the hopes that he’ll wake up and give him details of her son’s last moments, her husband, math professor Allen (Pierce Brosnan), takes the opposite tack. Changing the conversation whenever Bennett’s name comes up, he sublimates his grief, which manifests itself in insomnia and a general sense of removal. A similar strategy, coupled with therapy sessions and illicit drugs, is employed by his surviving son, self-described “fuck-up” Ryan (Johnny Simmons), still coming to terms with the unwarranted resentment he feels at always being in the shadow of his more successful older brother.
Into the picture comes Bennett’s ex-girlfriend, Rose (Carey Mulligan), three months pregnant with his baby despite the fact that they only recently started dating and only slept together once. Welcomed into the house for the term of her pregnancy (her own household is too unstable for her to stay with her parents), she forms a platonic bond with Allen while enduring cool treatment from Grace, who both blames her for her son’s death and evinces jealousy on her husband’s part for being able to form new bonds, while, as she explains, she can’t even walk past her son’s favorite breakfast cereal in the supermarket without collapsing in a pool of grief. Writer-director Sharon Feste understands the ways in which two people who might not otherwise have anything in common can prove a wellspring of comfort to each other, and the scenes in which Brosnon and Mulligan pair off stand as some of the film’s strongest. Feste is also shrewd at exploring how different people respond differently to the same tragedies, and in her sensitive handling of her characters’ varied reactions and the convincing, mostly restrained performances she elicits from her actors, her film often hits on what feel like credible truths.
Too bad that this precision is so often undercut by an increasing reliance on sentimental filigree, particularly notable in the director’s use of music and flashback. Take an early scene in which Rose reaches out to a reluctant Grace at the family’s beach house. Although the older woman wants nothing to do with the impending birth of her grandchild, she eventually gives in to Rose’s entreaties to touch her stomach and feel the baby’s movements. Sarandon’s face modestly and effectively registers the gradual change to an emotion-charged smile that she tries to but can’t repress, but Feste nearly blows the moment by working in a bland bit of melancholic piano as soon as Grace reaches out her hand. Similarly, a scene in which Rose’s recounting of her memories of Bennett to his father signals that man’s sudden willingness to face the tragedy is severely undercut by the strains of a sentimental guitar strumming. All of which is subtle stuff when compared to the film’s overwrought finale, which somehow manages to sandwich a scene where the entire family, driving to the hospital, serenade an in-labor Rose with cherished memories of their son, in between bookend flashbacks to the soon-to-be-mother’s first meeting with her deceased lover. Add to that a flat photographic quality and a film-long penchant for purely functional framing that are only emphasized by the director’s long takes and it’s easy to see how Feste keeps undermining her own project.
Another issue that the film raises is Rose’s questionable decision to keep her baby. Feste seems determined to co-opt criticism when she establishes that the young woman is not opposed on principle to “other options” and when an obviously liberal friend of Rose’s jokes that she’s handling the pregnancy “like a total Republican.” But just because the film acknowledges that the young woman considers abortion a viable alternative and it winks that its implicitly pro-life position is normally associated with a political party different from that to which the screenwriter presumably belongs, doesn’t mean that it’s any less troubling to watch a recent high school grad put aside her scholarship to Barnard to raise the child of a man who she had never so much as exchanged a word with just weeks before his death because she has suddenly decided he’s the “love of [her] life.” And what’s worse, she makes her choice without the movie giving even the slightest hint that she had seriously considered alternatives like abortion or adoption. In fact, the only character who raises any objections to the birth is Grace and even that’s due mostly to her personal resentment toward Rose. But even setting aside any political objections to Rose’s decision, one can easily protest on grounds of fidelity to the film’s characters and emotional tenor. This dreamy and harmful romanticism on the part of so otherwise composed an individual strikes a false and extremely sour note, which is especially unfortunate when we consider how much of Feste’s film had managed, against the odds, to treat difficult material with a generous and welcome honesty.