Classic Film Review: Ordinary People (1980)

And the Oscar Goes to:

Ordinary People, 1980

Directed by: Robert Redford

Starring: Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Judd Hirsch, Timothy Hutton


The last Oscar winner (or first, chronologically) of the 1980’s to be reviewed, Ordinary People follows the lives of a family who are breaking apart in the aftermath of a death. Mother, Beth Jarrett (Mary Tyler Moore), father, Calvin Jarrett (Donald Sutherland), and son, Conrad Jarrett (Timothy Hutton), each deal with the grief of the elder son, Jordan ‘Buck’ Jarrett (Scott Doebler), differently: Beth seems to be acting on as normal, however she rarely shows any form of affection for either her son or husband; Calvin is a lot quieter, and generally follows Beth’s orders without much say; and Conrad tried committing suicide and spent four months in a psychiatric hospital as a result (prior to the film’s opening) through guilt.

What is really impressive with Ordinary People is how each character is given two strong arcs: their own grief and life, and their relationship with the family, and this is helped through Dr. Berger’s (Judd Hirsch, A Beautiful Mind) story; firstly he sees Conrad as a patient and helps Conrad integrate back into society, before helping Calvin deal with his own hidden feelings. The evolution of Dr. Berger’s sessions with the male members of the Jarrett family helps the characters grow from the shells they appear at the beginning to accepting and moving on from the hardships of living with Buck’s death. This makes for fantastic character development, both on their own and with each other.

However on criticism of this is the formula of having Conrad having multiple sessions with Dr. Berger does mean the film spends a large part with Conrad talking to Dr. Berger, and while it makes for interesting character development it doesn’t home very many parts for major plot development. The accident which caused Buck’s death could have been focused on more, with a few flashing images retelling the event, but it could have slowly been shown throughout the film leading to the finale when Conrad finally confesses his guilt on his part. Also, with a lot of talking it does mean the soundtrack behind it isn’t very noteworthy, as more often than not it’s in silence aside from talking.

Without much of a plot with major obstacles throughout, Ordinary People decides to follow the lives of a suffering family, and it works really well. It doesn’t end with a generic happy ending, as Buck is still dead and they still have to heal, but it has a nice ending for them, but I just felt a little more on Buck’s life and death, as well as some faster paced scenes, could have improved the overall flow and feel of the film.


Plot: * * *

Acting: * * * *

Writing: * * * * *

Presentation: * * *

Overall Rating: * * * ¾


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