Though it starts out as an interesting "Rain Man" murder mystery (there's even a reference to "Rain Man" early on), "Silent Fall" becomes a little too fantastic and obvious to hold its audience very long.
Richard Dreyfuss stars as Jake Rainer, a troubled psychiatrist, an expert with autistic children who hasn't worked with kids in years. It seems Jake became depressed and withdrawn after the suicide of one of his young autistic patients resulted in a criminal investigation. Jake was exonerated but the good doctor is now emotionally scarred and living a rather sterile life with his lawyer wife Karen (Linda Hamilton).
Jake doesn't seem too dedicated to his practice, either. We only see one of his adult patients, an overweight woman with marital woes (a character played for cheap laughs). And in the only session we witness, Jake's not even listening to her and she eventually has to call his name to get his attention.
As the film opens, Jake is called upon by an old friend, local sheriff Mitch Rivers (J.T. Walsh), to help with a murder investigation. In an especially brutal knife killing, a wealthy couple has been murdered in their bed. And the slaughter was apparently witnessed by their children, sultry teenager Sylvie (Liv Tyler, daughter of Aerosmith's Steven Tyler) and autistic 9-year-old Tim (Ben Faulkner).
Jake is at first reluctant to help out but when he sees that clinical psychiatrist Rene Harlinger (John Lithgow) is going to administer drugs to try to bring the boy out, Jake decides to intervene.
"Silent Fall" is at its best when focusing on the relationship between psychiatrist and young patient, and there are some effective scenes as Jake works up some unconventional tricks to get through to Tim. But in the end, the film relies too heavily on gimmicks, as when Tim is able to perfectly duplicate the voices of anyone he hears. And the mystery plotting and dialogue are weak at best. (The first-time screenplay is by Akiva Goldsman, who is also contributing to the upcoming "Batman Forever.")
Newcomer Tyler has some effective moments and young Faulkner is convincing most of the way. But Hamilton, who was so powerful in the "Terminator" movies, has a thankless role (that seems to have been trimmed rather heavily), but none of the characters are particularly well developed. Even Dreyfuss seems a bit baffled in places, as if he's not sure how seriously to take all this.
This film's failure is doubly disappointing as it marks the second in a row for director Bruce Beresford, whose "A Good Man in Africa" last month was also quite clunky. (And it also featured Lithgow.)
Beresford has given us such wonderful films in the past ("Breaker Morant," "Tender Mercies," "Driving Miss Daisy") that it's a shame to see him in a slump. Let's hope he gets back on track for his next project.
"Silent Fall" is rated R for violence, gore, profanity and vulgarity.