Saving Grace, Nearing Grace, Grace Under Fire, Will & Grace: It's the thank-less literary fate of any fictional character given a name so rife with catchphrase possibilities to stand for far more than whoever she really is and whoever she could believably be. True, an actual Grace is actually gone in Grace Is Gone. A wife, mother, and military woman serving in Iraq, Grace Phillips has been killed in action as this anesthetizing indie-made tragedy begins, and it's left to her freshly widowed husband, Stanley (John Cusack), to break the news to their two young daughters. Stanley himself was once a military man until poor eyesight ended his career. Now, although he has joined the civilian army of employees at a heartland big-box home-supply store, he remains a supporter of the U.S. war effort, proud of his wife's choice to serve.
But with her death, the kind of grace that's a blessing to those with faith goes too or so writer-director James C. Strouse posits in his heartstring-twanging dirge on a theme of quagmire. (Strouse's screenplay for 2006's Lonesome Jim, directed by Steve Buscemi, demonstrated his early interest in the narrative possibilities of self-pity.) A fattened-up Cusack gives his character the trudging gait of a longtime resentful sad sack, suggesting the guy was no lighthearted spirit even in the best of times; maybe he drove his wife a little nuts with his dour act. Now, undone by grief and loss, Stanley can't find the words to break the news to his serious, hypervigilant 12-year-old daughter, Heidi (Shélan O'Keefe), or her more bubbly 8-year-old sister, Dawn (Gracie Bednarczyk). So he doesn't. He stalls by plopping them in the car and whisking them off on a road trip to a theme park in a manic search for the balm of manufactured fun. Who is this uncommunicative stickler for rules who suddenly yanks his girls out of school? Who is this father who thinks he's shielding his kids from pain but is actually prolonging their agony? He's an actor's dream, that's who, an amalgam of arbitrary actions. (Cusack even gets to wear unattractive eyeglasses.) In the background, the Mystic River-y piano tinkles of a score by Clint Eastwood attempt to put music to the plaintive questions of exhausted Americans losing loved ones in distant battle somewhere in the Valley of Elah.
The this-is-America road footage is broken up with a series of studiously calibrated father-daughter scenes signifying alienation (bland chain hotels off the highway, where the family checks in each night, are easily recognizable metaphors for malaise). But although we're told that grace died along with Grace, it's Stanley who's been missing in action all along. Grace Is Gone grabs on to a name, a war, and the metaphor-come-to-life of a theme park with rides going nowhere. And we, the people, are spun around and shaken for tears. C