In a movie world currently ruled by Harry and Hagrid – soon to be overtaken by Frodo and Bilbo – there won’t be much megaplex demand for a story about a middle-aged couple dealing with the ruination of their quiet family life. Todd Field’s “In the Bedroom” is a courageous film, especially from a first-time director, and deserves all the audience support it can attract. It’s a People Story, and it’s About Something. However, it’s also something of a heavy sit.
Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson play Ruth and Matt Fowler, upstanding citizens of Camden, Maine, an idyllic seaside community. Ruth is a choir teacher, Matt a doctor. Matt moonlights as a lobster fisherman, joined by son Frank (Nick Stahl, shaking off the scabrous Bully). All is well as fall approaches; Frank, an aspiring architect, is planning on graduate school.
But Frank also nurses thoughts of a future with his “summer thing,” Natalie, a single mother played with careworn grace by Marisa Tomei. Unfortunately for all involved, Frank fails to realize the extent to which he’s in over his head. Because Natalie’s soon-to-be-ex-husband Richard (William Mapother, cousin of one Thomas Cruise Mapother IV) has come back to town, and he’s taken an acute interest in her…affairs.
It doesn’t take long for things to get seriously ugly. (By the way, if you’re spoiler-sensitive, best to stop reading now.) We spend just enough time with Frank to get to know him as a decent young man mired in a situation he can’t possibly comprehend. Thankfully the story chooses not to saint him. He never plays the hero when he must defend Natalie and her two sons; we never even see Frank confront the weaselly Richard face-to-face. But the impact of their confrontation is no less disturbing for it. “In the Bedroom” is not really about violence, but the ramifications of it. As we know only too well, violence inevitably begets more of the same.
Field, an actor best known for his roles in “Ruby in Paradise” and Eyes Wide Shut, has directed his film with a sure hand, and the occasional touch of the poet. (Field was close friends with Andre Dubus, upon whose short story “Killings” the script is based.) It’s an occasional tendency of actors who direct to overindulge their peers by underdirecting them, standing clear as they act and act and act up a storm, treasuring every pause, twitch and shuffle as pure golden Truth. Sean Penn, for all the rigor of his films’ subjects and all his undeniable skill, sometimes falls into this trap. Yet we should be grateful – even those of us who endured the downbeat shaggy-dog joke of The Pledge – that Penn will never foist “Armageddon 2” on us anytime soon. He has the courage of his convictions and he’s to be admired for it, as is Field.
“In the Bedroom,” despite its length, rarely suffers from actorly overindulgence. In fact, the entire cast is exemplary, from Spacek and Wilkinson on down to Celia Weston, as Ruth’s best friend, and a surprise cameo by Karen Allen as an attorney. If anything, the film may actually suffer from too much restraint, too many unresolved issues, in telling its tragic tale.
A key scene late in the film illustrates the problem. Once the story has narrowed in on the repressed emotions reverberating between Matt and Ruth – neither seems willing to open up and discuss the paralyzing effect their son’s fate has had on them – we await an outburst, some sort of catharsis between them. And eventually, one explosive confrontation does break out.
It’s unfortunate, then, that as Matt blames Ruth outright for their son’s murder the movie seems to go along with him. For no discernible reason, we are meant to accept Matt’s sudden assertion that Ruth is judgmental, unforgiving, even bitter. For his part, up to this moment Matt has been presented as a bit of a pushover. Ruth accuses him of having been lax with Frank, especially concerning his ill-considered “summer thing” with Natalie. But the movie undercuts Ruth’s valid argument that Matt was living vicariously through his son when she – in a hysterically regrettable choice of words – dismisses Natalie as his “fantasy piece of a*s.”
At this point, a faint whiff of misogyny wafts through the film. It’s implied – though never really shown – that Ruth soon morphs into some sort of L.L. Bean-bedecked Lady Macbeth, pushing Matt to mete out vengeance. The women, it soon becomes clear, are the ones who cause all the trouble and beget all the violence – first Natalie, then Ruth.
At any rate, this central argument between Ruth and Matt’s is resolved too quickly and too readily, and the film loses much dramatic steam as a result. It seems natural for the two to hurl accusations, to blame one another – but forgiveness follows so soon that the natural drama feels tamped down. Is it that these uptight WASPs can’t deal with the emotions they’ve unleashed, or that the filmmakers can’t?
“In the Bedroom” is finally a film about what’s not said, what these characters refuse to say (or just can’t find the words to say). But one ends up wanting Field to free his inner Cassavetes, to really let these people loose on one another. The underplaying seems admirable at first, but the nagging ambiguity becomes somewhat oppressive. “In the Bedroom” walks a very fine line between austere and humorless, between somber and dreary.
In the end, Matt does manage to do the brave thing – or maybe the cowardly thing. It’s most likely not the smartest thing, but the viewer is left to decide whether his actions are right or wrong, and Field does cleverly pull a fast one or two along the way. Ambiguity is a rare concept in American films these days, and rare is the director who will infuse an entire film with it.
But this is an easier film to admire than to love. It’s almost more worthy for what it symbolizes: namely, the sort of film they just don’t make anymore. And it’s the film most in danger of being severely overrated this year, crushed under the weight of acclaim. “In the Bedroom” is certainly worth looking into, but it feels a little too repressed for its own good. If you believe the inevitable hype, you’re likely to be left in the cold.