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MUSIC BOX

Perhaps one of Jessica Langeís more gripping performances and one of her better films, MUSIC BOX is an emotionally draining experience that revolves around the consequences the past has when it truth is revealed. Lange plays defense attorney Ann Talbot. She is unfortunately in an estranged marriage with her husband but adores her twelve-year-old son, Michael (Lukas Haas). Her father, Mike Laszlow (Armin Mueller-Stahl), is a good man with a kind heart. She loves him dearly, as he was the only one there (aside from brother Karchy, played by Michael Rooker), while she was growing up, having lost her mother at an early age. Laszlow immigrated to the United States from Hungry towards the end of the Second World War, and has since made a modest living and considers his children full-fledged Americans. However, Annís world is turned upside down when a US Immigration Department investigation shows that Laszlow was not a simple farmer before he moved to America. Prosecutor Jack Burke (Frederic Forrest) believes there is an unquestionable amount of evidence that proves that Laszlow is actually a notorious war criminal named Mishke. Burke is motivated to bring justice to light, disgusted by the deeds committed by this monster. However, Ann decides to defend her father knowing he is innocent. This was after all the man who raised her and loved her. Taught her morals and guided her while growing up. She believes the Hungarian government is framing her father due to an incident several years earlier in which Laszlow threw garbage and created a ruckus at a Hungarian dancing tour in Chicago. Being anti-communist as Laszlow is, Ann believes that is the reason for the frame up. Though she believes that theory to be true, there is only one thing that she cannot understand, and that is that her father made large payments to another man who immigrated over to the States as well.

The trial against Laszlow begins. Four testimonies by four different people are heard. They are survivors of the Hungarian Nazi squad named Arrowhead. They are there to confirm that Laszlow is indeed Mishke, and tell their stories of the unspeakable things that went on. Being that they where running low on ammunition, the Naziís would tie families together and shoot one in the head. They would then throw them into the Danube River, where of course the ones not shot would drown while being tied to the dead. Stories of horrific rapes that went on from a woman who was sixteen at the time she was brutally tortured and raped from several soldiers, and especially Mishke. Another witness, who is terminally ill and cannot travel, admits he had actually worked alongside Mishke and will testify. But the judge and attorneys must fly to Hungry to listen to the testimony. Though the mans allegations turn out to be false, Ann being given documents that where signed by the old man years earlier that acknowledged that Mishke was not a war criminal, Ann goes to see the sister of the man who her father had been given money to for years. There she sees the picture of the womanís husband, and who has a noticeable scar on his cheek. The same scar that many of the witnesses said they saw. The sister gives Ann a pawn ticket, the only thing that was returned to her from her brotherís death. Her father is declared innocent due to lack of proof, but she goes to the pawnshop where she discovers the item, a music box. Inside, to her horror, are pictures of her father committing unspeakable acts. Her father is a cool blooded murderer after all. She confronts her father about it who believes she has been brainwashed by communists while in Hungry. But she mails the photos and a letter to Burke, and the truth is unveiled.

Itís hard to like this movie because even when truth wins itís a terrible loss for a woman weíve come to respect and care about. Langeís performance is subtle yet determined with ferocity, and we donít want to believe that the man she loves with all her heart is what people are accusing him of. This is a story about innocence being shattered, and how the persecution of one generation can destroy another. Langeís moral dilemma is a powerful one and her decision is not only hard on her, but that of her son who looks up to his grandfather. To shatter his trust and his youth by having the truth come out is a devastating notion. To tell him, a child, that his grandfather once murdered children his own age and tortured thousands. This movie is not about escapism, but about confronting things head on. This may turn some people off who are more interested in watching fantasy and ignoring reality, which is a shame. The movie is asking us to not forget about the past, because by dismissing it we are only forgiving it, but to acknowledge it. The music box itself is a metaphor for moving forward. A tiny mechanical machine that has to run its course before it can stop (Lange stops the music twice but it keeps going). Itís symbolic of fate, that we cannot change our destiny. Lange must do what is morally right at the expense of her own emotions and the expense of her own previous false beliefs. In the end, no one comes out the winner.

There are many powerful moments in the film, such as the testimonies (which donít have a Hollywood spin on them with the blaring emotional music going in the background and what not). One very gripping moment is when Rooker asks one of the witnesses to look at a picture of a younger Mishke. He barely looks at two seconds, but in his heart he knows it is the beast who did what he is accused of today. And the final confrontation with Lange and Mueller-Stall when she admits that she knows that it was all true. But he stands there with dead eyes, believing that she is not thinking rationally. He is not accepting or acknowledging the truth about himself or his actions. But she cries and sobs, and even hugs him and tells him she loves him. She has let the truth in, but he refuses to do so.

However, one complaint against the film is that we are not allowed to enter the mind of Mueller-Stall. We are permitted to go on Langeís journey of discovery, but never get a full understanding of why this man who came to America and raised a loving family was once a murderer. In fact, he is given much dialogue at all and disappears from sight during several scenes. Though the performance itself is satisfactory we just arenít given any time to examine or have an explanation from the man himself. The story doesnít lack because of it, but it would have made the film much more powerful. But director Costa-Gavras (best known for such great films such as 1969ís Z and 1982ís MISSING) tells this story with great fierceness, never allowing the audience to slip into escapism. He lays all the cards down on the table and unafraid to do so. This isnít a film you walk away of with a victorious feel, but a feeling of loss through gain. Tandy was nominated for an Oscar, but lost out to Jessica Tandy that year for DRIVING MISS DAISY.

My Grade: A