Over on the Eastern Shore, you see the following greeting on pick-up truck bumpers, right next to the "I'm the NRA and I Vote" sticker: "Welcome to the Eastern Shore. Now go home." "Silent ** Fall," the new mystery-thriller that is set there, has a similar hello/get lost quality to it. It begins promisingly and even threatens to veer toward originality; alas, then it becomes so mechanical it expels you from its circle of belief.
Filmed in and around Easton (the autumn-hued salt marshes and low, blazing forests are brilliantly captured by cinematographer Peter James), the movie opens with a horrific situation. There's a violent double stabbing that not only leaves a prominent Eastern Shore couple dead, but yields two terrified survivors: the 8-year-old autistic son, who is discovered standing next to his slaughtered mom and dad with the bloody murder weapon, slicing madly at the air, and their elder daughter Sylvie (Liv Tyler), hiding and traumatized in the closet after a scuffle with the killer.
The somewhat stolid sheriff (J. T. Walsh, who always plays stolid and may be stolid) calls in a local child shrink and autism expert, Dr. Jake Rainer, played by Richard Dreyfuss. But Dreyfuss is reluctant to get involved: Once a national expert on children's mental health issues, he himself has withdrawn from society after the drowning of a boy in his care.
Why is Dr. Rainer freighted with this millstone around his neck? The script can find no convincing reason except that in certain kinds of thrillers, the hero is always a wounded man who risks his psychic wholeness by going once again into battle. They think it makes him cool. In any event, the only witness to the crime is the boy -- played by Towson schoolboy Ben Faulkner with a horrifyingly eerie sense of self-involvement -- but he isn't talking.
Thus the thrust of the film isn't whodunit but who can get the boy to talk -- that is, who can penetrate his sealed-off mind and draw from him the answer. Besides the somewhat reluctant Jake, a flashy bozo from the Western Shore -- you know, America -- is brought in, played with simpering slickness by John Lithgow.
The story, at least in its first half, comes to turn on competing schools of psychotherapy -- whether, in Jake's technique, to nurture the boy into opening up, or in Dr. Harlinger's (Lithgow), to shoot him full of drugs.
But at the halfway point -- where the movie begins to go wrong -- a whole new cluster of complications sets in, and the movie lurches from the dynamic and provocative to the overly manipulative. One very bad stroke was to give young Tim the eerie ability to record and play back voices, a gift made clear at a scene filmed at St. Michael's Crab Claw restaurant. But it's such movie hooey the illusion hurts the film: The small boy opens his mouth and out comes the recorded voice of the grownup he's nominally imitating.
Reality, in general, is a problem; the film doesn't have much of it. For one thing, the movie is not helped by the crash course in forensics CNN is providing the country through the vessel of the O.J. Simpson case. We all now know that an intimate physical crime like a stabbing leaves saliva, sweat and bloodstains that may be decoded for DNA fingerprints among a limited number of suspects. No mention of DNA is ever made. For another, such a crime in such a beautiful little town would certainly arouse the professional curiosity of this newspaper and the one they have in Washington; yet no big town press type shows up to see what's what and the whole thing plays in a curious vacuum.
Finally the movie plunges into a moral cesspool of incest and child abuse and pornography that feels more exploitative than explorational. To what end are we traveling over this blasphemed ground? To learn something? But we don't. To be moved? But we're not. To be confused? Yes, but that's no trick.
Dreyfuss offers what might be called his typical performance: He's convincing and fluent, but somehow seems not wholly to be engaged in the project. Linda Hamilton, as his wife, has about three minutes in the movie in a thankless role. Liv Tyler, daughter of the famous rocker Steve Tyler of Aerosmith, has gawky grace and vulnerability, but her lack of sophisticated skills soon gets tiresome.
And what can be said about Bruce Beresford? I almost wrote "great director Bruce Beresford," because he has a couple of great movies to his credit, like "Breaker Morant" and "Black Robe." But he seems not to be able to punch routine material up into anything interesting, as he has shown in such films as "Crimes of the Heart" and "A Good Man in Africa." Additionally, he seems not at all to flourish in Maryland: his last film here was "Her Alibi," for which there was no alibi. Memo to Bruce Beresford: Stay out of the Free State, bub.
bTC Starring Richard Dreyfuss and Liv Tyler
Directed by Bruce Beresford
Released by Warner Bros./Morgan Creek