While on paper it all might sound like another inspirational movie of the week, director Jim Cliffe’s debut feature Donovan’s Echo contains more than enough powerful performances and filmmaking craft to warrant the theatrical release it’s getting. This simple story of a man plagued by visions of both past and future could’ve been preachy and saccharine in lesser hands, but Cliffe and his cast play things perfectly straight with a real sense of place and character to complement a story that almost hinges on what can really only be described as “spiritual mathematics.” It sounds far cheesier than it actually is.
Danny Glover stars as Donovan Matheson, a once great physicist and mathematician that worked on The Manhattan Project, who returns to his former small town home after disappearing for nearly thirty years following the death of his wife and daughter in an auto accident. His best friend and brother-in-law, Finnley (Bruce Greenwood), has been keeping things in order while he was away. No longer working as a great academic mind thanks to a massive gap in his resume, Donovan works as a grocery clerk and pores over his old journals. A series of coincidences between the past and present involving a young neighbour (Natasha Calis) both frightens and excites Donovan, but his sense of déjà vu could very well be signs of madness and dementia from a man that’s been depressed and drunk for so long that even the most tenuous connections make him feel useful again.
As Donovan, Glover reasserts why he’s one of the best actors of his generation. He hasn’t been this good in years, and it’s a shame no one has given him a role this well crafted in far too long. Glover plays Donovan at first like a man that could care less about his fate, but then as someone so depressed that when he sees a friend in trouble, he feels the need to fix everything at once and as fast as possible with little regard for the potential consequences. Whether Donovan’s visions are real or not are almost immaterial for the entire film, because the onus of the script hinges more on how Donovan reacts to his visions rather than how he actually acts upon them. Glover doles out equal parts fear, intensity, and sadness, in a bit of an acting clinic that holds the movie together.
Special merit is also earned for Greenwood, who turns his role as the best friend police officer into more than just a one note character. Finnley at times actually does want to believe everything Donovan says, but the way Donovan expresses things and acts without thinking becomes too much of burden on their relationship. Greenwood matches Glover nicely and their scenes together are handily the best in the film.
Cliffe and co-writer Melodie Krieger have crafted a kind of film that’s all too rare these days. It’s free of cynicism and crassness, but it isn’t peachy, hollow, forced, or ever once uses organized religion as a crutch to tell an inspirational story of a man trying to get his life back on track. (The closest the film comes is a couple of AA meetings in a church.) It also has just enough edge to it to offer a real sense of uneasiness that something might not be right with the main character. The big twist at the end of the film isn’t all that hard to figure out and some cynics might see the film’s earnestness as a demerit, but this is the kind of film a lot of people might point to when they say “They don’t make ‘em like this anymore.”