When we go to the movies there is a fair level of expectation going on all sides. For example, if I see Star Wars I walk in knowing it will ultimately be a story of good versus evil. Knowing that, the movie makers can use whatever tools at their disposal in the name of entertainment to either make me come back for a sequel or to get their point across to me.
Most of the time we just want to be entertained and we will endure quite a bit to reach that end. In watching the movie Just Let Go I was NOT entertained. And that isn’t because I didn’t appreciate the movie’s message.
The story of Chris Williams may well have been too close to home to appreciate. The true story was one we followed from the day it hit the news in 2007. Williams and his family were driving home one night when their car was struck by a drunk driver — leaving only Chris Williams and his six year old son to survive. I can recall with heartbreak reading the story with my wife as it described the death of the pregnant mother and two other children in the car.
I can recall our real conversation is hearing about this true story.
Williams, a father of five, lost an unborn child in the crash as well. That was instantly relateable to me because many times my wife and I have discussed “what if” should such a nightmare happen to one of us.
The story became that much more heart wrenching in later days as we learned the Williams was not only a husband and father, but LDS and a Bishop.
That was meaningful only in the sense that he shared with us spiritual values that I was certain we could talk about even though we were strangers. We read from the same scriptures and held in the common the same promises of the temple.
So the Chris Williams story was one with which we identified and knew before there was a movie made about it.
But throw on top of that my experiences this past year in losing my mother — a loss that in no way compares with the loss that Williams suffered as a result of the crash, but one that has taught me a thing or two about grief — and you can see why I felt compelled to pick up a copy of the movie without having read a review of it.
I trusted that the story in the movie would continue to relate to me.
Well, I made a mistake.
What we got in the movie version of the story titled “Just Let Go” was a weak and almost unrecognizable version of the real story.
And yes, the movie carries the name of Chris Williams as an executive producer, so I realize what a statement that is to make.
Since seeing the movie and before writing my review here I did read many other reviews of it out there. I will say what most of those other reviewers out there were too afraid to say. The movie subject matter and the experience of Chris Williams seems too delicate to criticize. But I am not criticizing him, I’m being critical of a movie. And at the end of the day that is what this came to mean for me — it’s just another movie.
I’m not a movie maker, I’m a movie watcher.
Stylistically this movie is getting good reviews for a lot of technical achievement. I just want a good story in any movie I watch. So the Blair Witch style of handheld camera usage, the flashes and muted color schemes, the dark and moody ambiance all gave this story a darkness from which there was no escape and no redemption.
The script jumped all over the place — from past to present in a blink of an eye. A little of that here and there for creative license is a good thing. Too much and it confuses the story. In one scene Williams shows a devastating facial injury. In the next, he’s healed. This movie was wildly confusing in parts because of these liberal jumps.
A lot has been made as well of the dishonesty in this film of failing to portray its Mormonism accurately. My first reaction to this was, “C’mon. What does Chris Williams being Mormon have to really do with his story of forgiveness?”
But as I watched it I became more and more bothered by the fact that the Chris Williams I knew from 2007 was not the Chris Williams we were watching in the movie.
You cannot begin to explore the depths of his feelings and his broken heart and his conflicts without knowing the entirety of his identity.
And I’m sorry, you cannot be an LDS Bishop and not have your faith as part of your identity in telling a story like this.
In fact, if there is one takeaway from the movie it is that Chris Williams isn’t actually as free with his feelings as you suppose. We all know what he did — a fact that was carried in the news to real affect in real life eight years ago to those of us who followed what happened.
But the movie was supposed to tell the story of how he got there. This movie didn’t do that. What it showed was a man who frequently couldn’t relate to his children and had difficulty defending his thoughts to his very angry mother and adamant District Attorney.
In fact, other than stunned and conflicted, we never get the idea of what Chris Williams is dealing with in this ordeal.
Played with some skill by the actor Henry Ian Cusick, who evidently rose to fame as a character on Lost, Williams is portrayed alternating between a deer-in-the-headlights to inexplicably calm. We have nothing to go on really to explain those extremes.
He is supported by a weak cast that seems to go through the motions. Brenda Vaccaro — and I’m old enough to remember other work she did decades ago — over acts and over reacts in her effort to portray Williams’ strong willed and opinionated mother. Darin Southam, who plays the defense attorney, wins trying the drunk driver as a juvenile with the weakest script a defense attorney is ever given. In fact, the only one in this movie who looks like he can act is Jacob Buster, who plays Williams injured son Sam. (And his best stuff ended up in the deleted scenes portion of the DVD).
I watched the movie with my 29-year old daughter, who too knew the story and even bought the book. In the movie where it is revealed that Williams as a 17-year old once killed a boy in a car accident too I was shocked — but my daughter was not, because she had read it in the book. That’s a major revelation in the story but I have to wonder, after seeing it all, if justice was really done to how that changed Chris because that too had its Mormonism stripped from it.
Other reviewers debate the Mormonism element of the story, too. Some argue that even with the subdued Mormonism of the movie that the story of Chris Williams doesn’t carry weight because he is Mormon. That’s dumb. But others explain away the changing of the Church as a means of making the story more of a draw to non-Mormons.
That’s where they lose me. A good story stands on it’s own. Truth never fails. To me, this story lost its very soul by denying the Mormonism behind it.
And it is too bad because the world needs to see more true stories about how good people overcome the bad things that happen to them — regardless of what faith they ascribe to.
I appreciated the scene in the movie where Chris faces the drunk driver. It was quite the scene and you’d have to have the coldest of hearts not to have been touched by it.
But it wasn’t enough.
The movie ends and you’re left to ponder — what helped Chris get through it? How did he arrive at his difficult decision? What was life like for him going forward?
The film was shot in Utah but that is about as “true” the movie got in claiming it was “a true story”.
The rest of it you either can’t trust because it wasn’t true or it just wasn’t explained. The questions I had before I watched it remain.