In the Bedroom
Screenplay : Robert Festinger and Todd Field (based on the short story "Killings" Andre Dubus)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : Tom Wilkinson (Dr. Matt Fowler), Sissy Spacek (Ruth Fowler), Nick Stahl (Frank Fowler), Marisa Tomei (Natalie Strout), William Mapother (Richard Strout), William Wise (Willis Grinnel), Celia Weston (Katie Grinnel), Karen Allen (Marla Keyes)
(Note that, in order to fully discuss the details of this film, certain plot elements must be revealed. If you have not seen the film and do not want to know the specifics of what happens, go see it and then come back. I say this because the film works most effectively when you know very little about the plot.)
The raw materials of Todd Field's astonishing In the Bedroom is the stuff of sensationalism—a young man's affair with an older, still-married woman, a murder out of jealous rage, a family's near-destructive inability to deal with its grief, the ultimate failure of the criminal justice system, and finally a premeditated revenge plot. Yet, Field keeps the focus so fully, so intently, on the characters that the film still plays like a quietly studied family drama. It speaks to broadly defined themes that are staples of literature and art—specifically the dimensions of familial grief and the roles of crime and punishment in society—yet it is done intimately, always with an eye on the people who are affected.
In the Bedroom is, in effect, a chamber piece, a study of the uncontainability of human emotions in the most extreme circumstances, and the results are as devastating as they are understandable. Never standing back from his characters, Field constantly keeps us in the middle of the emotional trauma, never letting us gain a comfortable distance to assess it from an objective point of view; he wants us to suffer with the characters and to understand—but not necessarily agree with—what they do.
The story, based on a well-known short story by the late Andre Dumus (to whom the film is dedicated), takes place in a quiet, idyllic Maine fishing town. It opens with an almost pastoral vision of a young man and woman running happily through a meadow, then close-ups of them kissing and holding each other close. Antonio Calvache's golden-hued cinematography is almost too radiant, and this sun-dappled opening scene will be the vision of carefree happiness (did it ever really happen, or is just a mental projection of emotions?) against which everything else that happens will be compared.
The young man is college-aged Frank Fowler (Nick Stahl), the son of the local doctor, Matt Fowler (Tom Wilkinson), and his wife, Ruth (Sissy Spacek), the high school music teacher. It is summer, and Frank has been engaging in a love affair with Natalie Strout (Marisa Tomei), an older woman with two young children who is not-quite-yet divorced from her obviously unstable husband, Richard (William Mapother). Ruth disapproves of the affair for perfectly understandable reasons, even if her rather harsh personality doesn't allow her to verbalize it clearly; Matt is more lenient on their son, perhaps because he is living through Frank vicariously.
Tragedy strikes in a way that is both shockingly sudden, yet, as real-life violence often is, painfully obvious in hindsight. Richard shoots Frank when Frank tries to keep him from entering Natalie's house. The murder itself is kept off-screen (one of many crucial narrative and visual ellipses throughout the film), so it always maintains a certain ambiguity—we are never sure exactly what happened, and our interpretation of Frank's death is reliant on our understanding of, and sympathy with, the characters. It seems obvious that Richard, portrayed as he is as smarmy, cruel, and egotistical, killed Frank in cold blood, which is what Matt and Ruth believe. Yet, because no one visually witnessed the murder (Natalie was in the stairwell when she heard the gunshot), the chances are high that Richard will at most be charged with manslaughter (he claims there was a struggle) and serve about five years.
As with the death of any child—particularly an only child—Matt and Ruth are devastated by Frank's death, and they go about grieving in entirely different ways that are contrasting to the extent that necessarily must lead to confrontations. Ruth internalizes; she drops out of life, brooding and angry, unable to forgive those she holds to be responsible (not only Richard, Frank's killer, but also Natalie, whose romantic involvement with Frank led to the tragedy). Matt tries to hide his pain by "going on" with his life. He goes right back to work, he accepts invitations for he and Ruth to spend the weekend with their friends, Willis and Katie Grinnel (William Wise and Celia Weston).
Matt and Ruth are simultaneously haunted by the a structuring dichotomy of absence and presence: the absence of their beloved son, his room in the same state of disarray as it was when he fatally rushed over to Natalie's house, and the presence of Richard, who is out on bail and free to roam the streets. This notion of absence/presence becomes the film's central tension in its second act, and when Matt decides to take the law into his own hands, we are left the feeling that it is more because of Richard's presence than of Frank's absence. Having resolved themselves to their son's death, Matt and Ruth can focus on nothing else but the erasure of the man who is responsible for it. They simply cannot stand to coexist in a world where their son's killer is allowed to go free.
It is here that Field and his coscreenwriter Robert Festinger take a strong moral stance, presenting us with a conventional revenge scenario that provides for no emotional catharsis, for either the characters or the viewers. In essence, they subvert one of the most effective narrative tropes—vengeance—in order to show its ultimate hollowness. They do this by both denying us the planning stages of the vengeance (or even a hint that it will take place until the moment is actually does) and through a carefully pieced together sequence of final images that fully imply that nothing has been accomplished except one more killing.
Field, who is primarily known for roles as supporting actor (he played Nick Nightingale in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut) has been making well-received short films for close to a decade. In the Bedroom is his feature-film debut, and it reveals him to be a confident director whose sometimes overreaches visually, but is superb in generating strong performances from his actors. When Field tries to get overly cinematic (such as a series of awkward extreme close-ups during a conversation between Matt and the district attorney that is meant to portray Matt's subjectivity), he loses touch. However, when directing scenes that focus on the performances, he is brilliant, knowing just how to frame and capture the essence of what his characters are going through. The fact that every single performance in In the Bedroom is a knock-out says something—from Tom Wilkinson's tortured Matt, to Sissy Spacek's inward-turning Ruth, to Marisa Tomei's unfairly maligned Natalie.
Field is obviously a talented filmmaker, one of the few American directors who understands emotional complexity and, more importantly, can translate that to the screen in a way that registers without feeling forces. In the Bedroom is a stunning piece of work in its evocation of the limits of human grief and understanding, and one can only hope that it portends of things to come from Field.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick