review for In the Lake of the Woods on AllMovie

In the Lake of the Woods (1996)
by Tom Wiener review

Unsatisfying as either a psychological portrait of a public man with two large skeletons in his closet or a mystery surrounding the disappearance of his wife, In the Lake of the Woods is still watchable, if only because of its broad ambitions. Since he was a boy, John Waylan (Peter Strauss) has been driven to please other people, exemplified by his interest in performing magic tricks. In his adult life, he's steered into another kind of public performance, that of an aspiring politician, though the film is vague on how Waylan made that switch. Two traumatic incidents from his past, however, have hampered him emotionally; as one character says, "He's been distant since his father died." (And, as the film shows, that occurred in dramatic fashion when John was still a boy: skeleton number one.) Philip Rosenberg's script jumbles chronology and uses the well-worn device of having characters speak to the camera, which stands in for a reporter trying to solve the disappearance of Waylan's wife. However, the nature of Waylan's character remains not just elusive but uninteresting. This is in part due to the limited performance of Peter Strauss, which never makes Waylan's anguish seem all that real. Kathleen Quinlan does well with the difficult role of the political wife who discovers too late that her husband is essentially an empty vessel. Peter Boyle is less persuasive as the wise old pal who is ambushed by his candidate's second secret, about his actions in Vietnam (skeleton number two). Boyle is forced to recite such head-scratching observations as the claim that all magicians and politicians have unhappy childhoods. When the reporter concludes the story (which offers two possible solutions to the disappearance) with the observation that John Waylan is "beyond knowing," and the ambiguity of Kathy Waylan's fate "may be dissatisfying," he's right on both counts. Scenarist and book author O'Brien's concept of the public man whose past comes back to haunt him has so many echoes in the lives of real-life politicians that it's worthy of better treatment than this film.