- Movie Rating -

Without a Trace (1983)

| February 4, 1983

Given the nature of even the title Without a Trace, we kind of already know how to feel. We know that this will be a movie about a boy who disappears into thin air.  We know that the nature of the procedural that will follow.  We know because we’ve seen it a thousand times on the news.  We remember Adam Walsh.  We remember Etan Patz.  We remember the agony of the days and days that went by without a word, a sign, a clue or a trace.

That makes up the best parts of Without a Trace, a movie that wants to give us the inside feeling of what it must be like when a child disappears.  In fact, the opening scenes of the movie are the best, as we see little Alex (Danny Corkill) getting ready for school.  The homelife is seen in intimate detail.  His mother Susan (Kate Nelligan) is divorced and we see her connection with her son as something that we would recognize from any parent.  He leaves his clothes in the floor, he is fussy at breakfast, and he has interactions with his mother that are alternately frustrating and then loving.  The tension in this scene is almost unbearable because we know that soon Alex will disappear and this comfort of routine will all but go away.

Then it does.  First time director Stanley Jaffe, previously a producer on Kramer vs. Kramer and The Bad News Bears, does a very good job of creating an atmosphere of ordinariness that we know will soon be disrupted.  That moment really hits home when we see little Alex on his way to school.  He waves to his mother and then quickly disappears around a corner.

What follows is a pretty good procedural.  It is exactly what we expect but that doesn’t mean its not effective.  Susan is a professor at Columbia University which means that her world has some sense of order, but it is interesting to watch that order turned upside down.  She panics when she comes home and doesn’t see Alex.  She calls a neighbor whose daughter is a classmate, then soon her home becomes a command center filled with police officers who persistently ask questions, looking for clues about where her son might have gone.  The lead detective is Menette (Judd Hirsch) who understands her pain, he has a family himself.

What is most interesting about this movie is the way in which it presents what happens when the leads dry up.  The police break down the command center and move it back to the station.  The news stops carrying the story.  The house gets quieter and Susan becomes more and more frantic.  Time moves on, Alex is still missing, but the investigation has largely been abandoned.

Those scenes are really effective.  You get an inside view of the pure agony that this poor woman is going through and Kate Nelligan gives a very good very restrained performance as a woman whose is nearly at a breaking point.

What I didn’t like was the film’s second half.  Menetti begins to get leads, he breaks protocol when he thinks he may have something and the movie draws to a conclusion that, while satisfying, doesn’t seem to ring with the sense of reality that we get from cases like Adam Walsh or Etan Patz.  I’m not asking for a tragedy, but I guess I wanted something more real, something that matched the kinds of stories that we get in the headlines.  This ending feels too neat, to compact, to packaged for a mass audience.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1983) View IMDB Filed in: Drama