A story about awful people doing unspeakable things to one another, emotional cruelty as blood sport, "Savage Grace" is at times as viscerally discomforting as it is emotionally engrossing. Director Tom Kalin, at last following up his debut feature "Swoon" more than 15 years later, brings a maturity and restraint to material that could be played for sensationalized kicks, crafting instead a work of rigorous verve and careful, skillful modulation. It's tough to think of another film in which sex between a mother and her son is not necessarily the worst thing that happens.
Adapted by Howard A. Rodman from the book of the same name by Natalie Robins and Steven M.L. Aronson, "Savage Grace" tells the true-crime tale of Barbara Baekeland, who marries into the wealthy family responsible for inventing Bakelite plastic. A hungry social-climber, Barbara (played with astonishing resolve by Julianne Moore) dotes on her son Tony to the point of smothering manipulation. After Barbara and her husband, Brooks, split, she and Tony lead a peripatetic lifestyle as jet-set exiles across Europe. Barbara's desperation becomes all-consuming for them both.
Though Stephen Dillane and Eddie Redmayne give thorny, acidic performances as Brooks and Tony, respectively, the film is overwhelmed and dominated by Moore's portrait of the ferociously wounded Barbara. Moore is at once transparent and completely inscrutable, as the luminous milkiness of her skin and opulent coif of her hair create an opaque curtain that hides as much as it reveals. It is to the credit of Moore (and, for that matter, Kalin and Rodman) that the character is allowed so often to be strident and unlikable. It may not be easy to sympathize with Moore's character, but it is possible to understand her and, even more unsettling, to relate to her.
In the sequence that provides the film with its emotional centerpiece, Barbara confronts her husband at a Spanish airport as he is leaving with the younger woman he has wooed away from his son. Born to an enormous wealth that has robbed him of any real ambitions, Brooks is no match for Barbara's desires.
Barbara's dress is soaked with a deep red graphic against a white background. It gives the feeling that she has been party to a terrible accident or even that something has exploded near her. As "Savage Grace" soldiers on to the inevitable tragedy of self-loathing and madness at its conclusion, it becomes clear that what's been blown apart is her heart and soul, it just takes time for her body to catch up.
"Savage Grace." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes. At the Landmark, 10850 W. Pico Blvd., West L.A., (310) 281-8233; Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500; Laemmle's Playhouse 7, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 844-6500; Laemmle's Town Center, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 981-9811; Regency's Rancho Niguel 8, 25471 Rancho Niguel Road, Laguna Nigel, (949) 831-4359.