How well do you know your child? If they did something awful, how far would you go to protect them, not only from outside forces, but from themselves? These are the intriguing questions that the gripping first act of Before and After sets up. Unfortunately, with a muddled second act, the film loses sight of these questions and quickly sinks into overwrought territory that’s marred by maudlin speeches and silly handwringing.

Ben (Liam Neeson) and Carolyn (Meryl Streep) are the perfect couple, living a perfect life in an idyllic New England small town. One evening, their perfect existence is disrupted by a visit from the local sheriff (Daniel von Bargen), looking for their son, Jacob (Edward Furlong). It seems that a teenaged girl has been murdered, and Jacob was the last person seen with her. When Jacob turns out to be missing, the sheriff immediately becomes suspicious and tries to search Jacob’s car and room. Ben, not being an idiot, refuses to allow him without a search warrant. Carolyn, being a little more naïve, worries that something has also happened to her son, despite his car being present in the garage. When the sheriff leaves, Ben quickly checks the car to find bloody rags and gloves and a jack covered in blood. After giving the matter some thought, he burns the gloves and rags, cleans and disposes of the jack and starts charting a way to lie his son out of prison.

These early scenes are tremendously suspenseful, with Neeson doing some great work as a father who is willing to do anything he can to protect his son. After several weeks on the run, Jacob is finally caught and brought back to stand trial. But once the focus leaves Ben and his attempts to write a narrative that is best for his family and moves to Carolyn and her moral qualms about the way Ben is handing the situation, the film starts to lose traction. By the time Jacob comes out with the truth of what happened, the film had lost its sense of place and devolved into a weepy, kitchen-sink melodrama that is more concerned with the family arguing amongst themselves about the right thing to do. Meanwhile, the residents in their town turn against them in such clichéd ways as throwing rocks through their windows and making menacing phone calls.

I absolutely hate to see a film squander such promise. I didn’t expect much when I sat down to watch the film and found myself riveted by the sticky moral questions and Neeson’s hard-charging performance. But the film unspools with such a confused sense of what it is, I was unable to ignore the flaws of the story and the character of Carolyn.

Carolyn is supposed to represent the idealist to Ben’s pragmatist. But she simply comes off as incredibly stupid. Not only does she seem to not understand the first thing about the legal system, but she comes across as so whiney and passive, it’s hard to believe her character is a doctor. I can imagine her complaining that it’s so unfair for a patient to have cancer that she’s just not going to treat them as a protest to a system in which good people are allowed to become sick. When she finally does grow a backbone and become proactive, she does something so stupid, I wanted to step into the movie and shake her until she started acting like a recognizable human being.

It’s commendable that director Barbet Schroeder is just as interested in exploring the impact of the murder on the family of the accused as he is in crafting a courtroom thriller in the vein of Presumed Innocent. But he quickly loses focus on the thriller aspects of the story that speak toward the initial questions the film asks. It feels like he had to make a choice between the two styles of film and did the worst thing a director can do: he made no choice.

Still, the stellar first act and a great cast make the film almost worth watching. If not for some frustrating character choices and a wholly unsatisfying ending, the movie might have been very good. As it is, it’s merely a good showcase for Neeson’s talents in service of a misguided story.

Matt Wedge is a writer and film critic currently doing time in the suburbs of Connecticut.

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