In Before and After, Meryl Streep is a small-town pediatrician and Liam Neeson is a successful artist who makes big, John Chamberlainish metal sculptures. As Carolyn and Ben Ryan, they have two children and live in a rambling old house in New England. One day, their 16-year-old, played by Edward Furlong, is accused of murdering his girlfriend. Furlong’s Jacob runs away. Unsure whether his son did the deed but determined to protect him, Ben destroys potential evidence and lies to the authorities. Jacob’s younger sister, Judith (Julia Weldon), and Carolyn are appalled by Ben’s actions.
Based on Rosellen Brown’s popular 1992 novel, Before and After is meant to show how a close-knit family can unravel during a crisis. But under the guidance of director Barbet Schroeder (Reversal of Fortune) and screenwriter Ted Tally (The Juror, The Silence of the Lambs), the movie is as cold as its chilly scenes of winter. As the focus of everyone’s attention, Furlong is thoroughly unlikable — the actor withholds most of his character’s emotions and pitches his voice into an annoying Michael Jackson whine. Jacob is thus never more than a sullen brat. Brown’s characters weren’t very likable either, but her prose carried the story; in a film, we need people we can care about, or at least root for.
Streep and Neeson are awfully good at conveying the parents’ agony and confusion, but only Weldon is permitted to tug at the audience’s hearts, in touching voice-over narration. Her character, however, is also the only member of the Ryan family who’s superfluous to the action. In Reversal of Fortune and Kiss of Death, Schroeder’s cool irony energized his material; in Before and After, it enervates the story he is trying to tell. C-