[box cover]

In the Bedroom

In the wrong hands, In the Bedroom (2001) would be a trite melodrama about the immense pain and suffering that strikes a family after an untimely death, full of weeping, shouting performances that plead for Oscar hardware. But in the right hands, the film manages to be something more — a careful examination of unbearable grief, which (in real life) normally churns under the surface of conventional human behavior for weeks, months, or years. In this case, the "right hands" belong to actor-turned-director Todd Field, who managed to attract a quality cast to his low-budget drama, and also get the attention of the Academy even if he wasn't looking for it. Based on the story 'The Killings" by Andre Dubus (with the screenplay by Field and Robert Festinger), In the Bedroom concerns the Fowler family, a well-to-do Maine household. Dr. Matt Fowler (Tom Wilkinson) is a prosperous small-town physician, and wife Ruth (Sissy Spacek) is a high school music teacher with an unusual interest in Balkan folk songs. Both are Ivy League-educated professionals, which has informed their only child, 21-year-old Frank (Nick Stahl), a thoughtful architecture student. But home for a summer and lobster fishing for extra money, Frank falls for local single mother Natalie Strout (Marisa Tomei), who has two young sons and a creepy ex-husband in Richard Strout (William Mapother), the scion of a wealthy cannery clan. Matt tacitly approves of his son's summer fling, believing that it's a harmless romance, but the more domineering Ruth urges Frank to leave it alone and not get too involved with the older woman, who could potentially take his mind off of his academic goals. After a time it appears that Ruth has won her case and Frank has decided to return to college in the fall. But just before his departure he winds up between Natalie and her deranged ex Richard — an altercation that costs Frank his life, while Richard's family posts a hefty bail and gets him back on the street looking at a soft manslaughter trial a year or two away.

*          *          *

Despite its somewhat sensational subject-matter, In the Bedroom is an evenly paced film — so much so that Frank's murder happens at the beginning of the second act (delayed to such a point that some folks consider it a plot-spoiler, even though it's the script's raison d'être). Throughout, Field directs with a careful hand, illustrating his characters' various motivations: Frank's good-natured love for Natalie, and her admiration of her young boyfriend's passionate intelligence; Ruth's commitment to her music and her son's future; Matt's genial appreciation of his comfortable suburban lifestyle. This rather lengthy exposition is what makes the second act of the story so remarkably powerful — we cannot possibly share in Matt and Ruth's grief had we not known what a smart, promising young man Frank was. Thankfully, the familial grief is extraordinarily underplayed. Real suffering after an inexplicable tragedy often occurs in a quiet stillness; it's not the sort of thing that brings people together, and usually it drives them apart. In this context, a variety of small moments deliver a portentous subtext, as Ruth takes up chain-smoking and endlessly watching TV while Matt returns to his practice soon after the funeral. Matt's poker-playing friends try to offer their support, but they find him barely receptive. Ruth is offered counsel by the family's priest, but the sympathy feels hollow to her and falls on deadened ears. It's a wonderful pair of character sketches that illustrate why so many parents divorce after the death of a child, culminating in the film's only bit of high-volume drama, as the suffering Matt and Ruth eventually reveal that they actually blame each other for their son's death — farfetched conclusions, but common for people who struggle for hardened truths in the face of overwhelming anguish. Wilkinson and Spacek both come up with career-defining performances, notable for two actors who already have built substantial bodies of work. Nick Stahl and Marisa Tomei are likewise wonderful in their supporting roles, each revealing a tenderness of character. And as the passive-aggressive Richard, William Mapother does well with a plumb part, shifting from sweetness to rage in a flash while trying to woo back Natalie, and then turning timid when confronted by Matt in the third act. Field's direction is solid, and he never gets his camera ahead of his actors or his script — those are the elements that ground the picture, often given additional emphasis by somber fade-outs at the right moments. This is not a film about what's said, but what's left unsaid, right up to the thought-provoking denouement, which offers little more than a photograph and a bandage to sum up all that has come before. Buena Vista's DVD release of In the Bedroom features a strong anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Regrettably, supplements are virtually non-existent — a commentary from Field would have been welcome, but all that's here are a handful of promotional trailers for other Miramax releases (including Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York). Keep-case.
—JJB



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