While movies such as Ice Age and Resident Evil are holding court among younger viewers, the more adult filmgoer would be well-advised to turn his or her attention to this quasi-art film that has sneaked into town more or less unheralded on the strength of local interest in star Andie MacDowell. The good news is that Harrison’s Flowers (regardless of its lackluster title, which refers to the David Strathairn character’s greenhouse flowers — and by symbolic extension, his wife and children) is a very good film that just misses being a great one due to a weak last act. In some quarters, the movie has been criticized on the grounds that the plot that houses the film’s broader themes is “unbelievable.” There may be some justification for this objection, though calling it melodramatic would be nearer the mark — and I’m not altogether sure that the movie’s melodramatics weren’t the best way to make Harrison’s Flowers work in a broader sense. The film’s intent is very obviously to drag the viewer into the reality of the horror of a situation like the war in Bosnia — to pull us out of network-news mode and expose us to that which the media often dulls by keeping it distant and safe. What better way to do this than by utilizing a simple melodramatic story line? When Sarah Lloyd’s (Andie MacDowell, in what is easily the best performance of her career) photojournalist husband, Harrison (David Strathairn), is reportedly killed on assignment in Bosnia, she refuses to believe in his death because of a variety of circumstances (a mysterious phone call that might have been from him after his supposed death, a figure glimpsed in news footage that might be him) and her own conviction that “something would have broken inside” her were he really dead. Armed with some of his cameras and a Newsweek ID, she goes to Bosnia on her own to try to find him. It’s a simplistic premise, but it’s effectively used to slap both her and the viewer in the face with the discovery of the fact that this war — which most of us barely (if at all) understand — is altogether different when viewed other than from the safety of an armchair in New Jersey. What makes this premise work is more implicit than not. Sarah’s notions of what she plans to do are both born of the false sense of safety afforded by the distance of media coverage and a certain ingrained American arrogance that if you want to do a thing, you can just go do it. And that’s one of the things that sets Harrison’s Flowers above the recent spate of war movies such as Behind Enemy Lines, Black Hawk Down and We Were Soldiers. Making Sarah an uncomprehending innocent with no idea what she’s getting into and a wholly personal agenda, the film manages never to fall into the black hole of jingoism. This is simply one person thrust into the reality of a horror she couldn’t begin to comprehend from afar. (And it’s not lost on director-co-writer Elie Chouraqui that there’s an irony in making his heroine part of the very media that distances her from this reality.) When her apparently simple plan to rent a car and check hospitals for her husband goes awry — virtually from the moment she crosses the border — Harrison’s Flowers delivers a full-frontal assault on both Sarah and the viewer, with a jolt you normally don’t find in even the most hard-core horror film. Unlike the films that surround it, Harrison’s Flowers is not a state-of-the-art bloodbath — and this is also very much in its favor. Director Chouraqui opts to rely on human drama and suggestion rather than wallow in CGI carnage. Nothing in the highly acclaimed Black Hawk Down — for all its flying prosthetics and computer wizardry — comes anywhere near the first shock of real war in Harrison’s Flowers, and nothing in the somewhat less praised We Were Soldiers is even in the same ballpark of haunting horror as the largely suggested image of a little girl who has been raped and killed in this film. It’s strong stuff, and it lingers in the mind because it doesn’t make you stop to marvel at how it was done. Unfortunately, the plot’s melodrama does require some sort of resolution and here Chouraqui falters, awkwardly employing and out-of-nowhere narration and a shift in tone that makes the final section of the film feel like a quick wrap-up to something approximating a happy ending. Until then, though, Harrison’s Flowers is a very fine work with outstanding performances, startling images, disconcerting thoughts and simple humanity. Alas — since it’s not a film that glorifies the military, or plays to the seeming mass desire to see American supremacy larger than life on the Big Screen — it’s probably not destined to be much of a hit. But if that’s the sort of war-movie mentality you’ve had enough of, Harrison’s Flowers offers a very valid alternative.
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