Picks and Pans Review: Without a Trace

updated 02/21/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/21/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

What do you do about a movie that is tense, sharply detailed and beautifully acted and then almost blows everything with a mawkish, TV-movie ending that strains credulity? If the movie is Without a Trace, you ignore the lapse. At its best, the film exerts the tidal wave pull of a Kramer vs. Kramer or Ordinary People. Based on Beth Gutcheon's 1981 Still Missing (Gutcheon also wrote the screenplay), the plot centers around the disappearance of a 6-year-old Brooklyn schoolboy. The story strongly resembles the case of Etan Patz, a 6-year-old Manhattan boy who vanished while walking to school in 1979. Some reviewers found Gutcheon's book exploitive, but "onscreen" most criticism will probably be allayed, thanks to producer-turned-director Stanley R. Jaffe's compassionate handling of the material. Canadian Kate Nelligan, currently the rage of Broadway in Plenty, plays the boy's mother with clarity and grace. Her performance has the interpretive shading managed only by the best. Maintaining an outward calm through police interrogations, media interviews, false leads, panicky friends and a despairing estranged husband (David Dukes), Nelligan connects so intensely with the role that we hear the screaming inside. Matching her is Judd (Taxi) Hirsch as a police detective who hangs on to Nelligan's slim thread of hope. Ever since Ordinary People, Hirsch has been primed for the big film role to make him a star. This is it. Stockard Channing, Dukes and Keith McDermott offer fine support, but it's the fierce integrity of Nelligan and Hirsch that keeps the movie from overstating the big emotions. Unlike the false ending, the emotional uplift they provide is doubly stirring for being honestly earned. (PG)

From Our Partners