Having read quite a bit of Robert Cormier’s extensive catalog, I knew a film based on one of his books was bound to be haunting. But nothing prepared me for the reality of Tenderness. The story focuses on Eric Komenko (played by Jon Foster), an 18-year-old serial killer who is being released from the juvenile detention center he was in, his record expunged. He’s contemplating which college to attend, trying to go back to a normal life, but it’s not easy due to the publicity surrounding his case.
Shortly after his release, Eric opts to take a road trip to “check out some colleges in Albany” (or hook up with a girl he met while at the detention center, take your pick) and finds his car is already inhabited by Lori Cranston, who is sleeping in the back. Lori (played by Sophie Traub) is a troubled teenage girl obsessed with Eric and the memory of the day they met, before he was arrested for murder. Eric allows her to keep him company on the trip, despite his comments that she’s a freak and the times he seems to be plotting to kill her.
While on the road, Eric and Lori are followed by Detective Cristofuoro (Russell Crowe of Gladiator fame). Cristofuoro, a not quite retired cop who handled Eric’s case, seems to have nothing better to do than stalk Eric and constantly remind him that he’s still a danger to everyone around him. He has no friends, his wife is in a coma, and the only hobby he has is keeping tabs on Eric. This role is really rather pathetic, which was a nice change of pace for Crowe. I haven’t seen him look this miserable since he got arrested for allegedly throwing a telephone at someone. Nicely done.
The real gem of this film is Sophie Traub. She plays her role to perfection, setting herself up as the true center of attention. At times she appears naïve and childlike, such as when she decides to try curry for the first time, while in other scenes she is world-weary from the hardships she has faced. Beautifully volatile, it’s difficult to tell if she is with Eric because she romanticizes the concept of death or because she is so mixed up and doesn’t know how risky it is to hang out alone with a possibly reformed serial killer who offed his own parents.
What makes this film so interesting is the similarity between Eric and Lori. Both characters are trying to recreate themselves, but they can’t quite let go of their individual histories. It’s their joint past that ultimately binds them and forces them to take this journey together, a journey which, for one of them, may end sooner than either expects.
As far as the filmography goes, it’s all rather poetic. The contrast between locations such as the stunning river front and Funland, the seriously shady amusement park, is striking. (Note to reader: if a known serial killer ever asks you to go to a place called Funland, it probably won’t be very fun. You may want to pass.) The pacing can be slow at times, but it almost makes the audience believe they are along on the road trip. Some points move as quickly as if you are on the highway, while others are like being in a school zone.
This is definitely a movie that’s not for everyone. There’s not a ton of action; Tenderness is centered on character and relationship developments as forms of plot progression. But if you like films that make you think, Russell Crowe movies, or serial killers, then you’ll really enjoy Tenderness.
DVD Bonus Features
The only featurette is “Finding Tenderness: Bringing the Novel to the Screen,” which is exactly what it sounds like.
"Tenderness" is on sale April 13, 2010 and is rated R. Crime, Drama, Thriller. Directed by John Polson. Written by Robert Cormier (novel), Emil Stern (screenplay). Starring Alexis Dziena, Jon Foster, Laura Dern, Russell Crowe, Sophie Traub.