Isabella Rossellini is given the strongest role of her career (I mean, in *Blue Velvet*, she was scorching and daring, but she was played as a bit of an archetype and dream figure, and not as a woman struggling through a life crisis in quite so identifiable a way). Rather than fall prey to playing her role as an insensitive wife who doesn't understand the extraordinary passage her husband is undergoing, she is given the chance to really be a hero in her own right. She could *never* understand--but she tries to--and gives extraordinary credibility in a role of struggling to give what she can as Jeff Bridges' Max Klein hurtles himself into his obsessive self-made universe from his ordeal and survival. When it's clear she can no longer do that, she becomes a noble warrior to fight for her own sanity and that of her son. The procession of her character is flawless and every moment feels right.
The interplay between Rossellini and Rosie Perez is played out with unexpected honesty, restraint and brilliance. Perez' Carla has her own parallel situation, with a husband who completely can't understand why she won't exploit the situation for all she can get in court (a great early small performance from Benecio Del Torro). He is, like Rossellini, troubled by the bizarre and nonobvious intimacy that has developed between his wife and Jeff Bridges, two people whose lives might never have ordinarily crossed. Perez is, as has been mentioned elsewhere here, devastating. Her grief over the loss of her son is sustained and utterly utterly credible.
This brings us to Jeff Bridges. Man, oh man, this is his career masterpiece performance--arguably the greatest leading acting role of the 1990's. He *gets* what writer Rafael Yglesias and Peter Weir are narrowly aiming for here, and it's something no other movie has approached that I've seen. It is--the instantaneous and seemingly lifelong bond that develops between those who have been through a life-changing crisis, and how that can completely absorb them to the exclusion of *everything* else in their lives. What sounds like a subtle point here is **nailed** by Yglesias and Weir, and I can't imagine another actor who could have gotten what that feels like. I know from personal experience--mine was nothing like a plane crash--but the phenomenon that this movie ventures to explore that I just described, which may seem like mostly bizarre behavior shifts in Bridges' character to those who haven't experienced what I'm talking about--is in fact as real as love, fear, or passion itself. What Bridges realizes in putting together Max Klein is that he's *utterly* lucid--he feels as though he sees things as clearly as he ever has in his life and *never* wants to let that clarity go to revert to a more "rational" way to confront the trauma he has gone through.
Others have mentioned the "why didn't this get bigger press" issue. The studio was quite nervous that this was an art house movie and didn't promote it as heavily as they might have. It actually did quite well at the box office initially and early advocacy for Bridges and Weir to get Oscars were definitely out in the review stream, but this had the misfortune of being released *just* before a little movie called *Schindler's List*, which summarily grabbed the cinematic spotlight and completely eclipsed everything else at the Oscars.
Director Peter Weir himself considers this his greatest work and was greatly stung by what he considered the slight it was given by Hollywood and the public. In many ways it has shaped a cynicism towards Hollywood he has had ever since, and it would be five years before he'd find it in himself to direct another film.