In the Bedroom
Director: Todd Field. Cast: Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek, Marisa Tomei, William Mapother, Nick Stahl, William Wise, Celia Weston, Karen Allen. Screenplay: Rob Festinger and Todd Field (based on the short story "Killings" by André Dubus).

Photo © 2001 Miramax Films
The first hour of Todd Field's debut as a writer and director makes lean, impressive strides into territory where most American filmmakers, even indies, fear to tread. It is no secret that In the Bedroom revolves around the grief and rage (both largely internalized) of a middle-class couple in Maine when their son, an only child of college age, is murdered by his lover's estranged husband. Provocative setups and harrowing violence are hardly new to U.S. arthouses, but for once the filmmaker's patron saints are not Sam Peckinpah, John Cassavetes, or Quentin Tarantino. What we have here is an American translation of Bresson or Antonioni: even when the emotions in the story get hot, the statically composed frames effectively cool them. Shots of empty space abound—the sky over a wheatfield, a green backyard, a coastal promontory, the white walls of a house. Silences and portents hang eloquently in all this dead air, which is why the eruption of bloodshed feels tonally prepared-for, and which helps to ameliorate certain indulgences of the script—I'm particularly thinking of a monologue about lobsters that lumbers along to that familiar tune, "How To Understand the Title of This Film."

No one can accuse Field, an actor, of careless casting. All of his principals communicate so well their landscapes of interior emotion that the audience, after an entrancing exposition and the horrifying crisis, prepares itself for a whopping second act. The first long interval we spend with the grieving parents Matt and Ruth Fowler, played by Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson, appears promising; In the Bedroom lucidly captures the implosive fury that separately prohibits each character, despite their shared wound, from providing the other with much-needed support. Matt attempts a lunch in public with his best friend, but talking around his loss is as painful as talking through it: it is illuminating to watch two middle-aged guys approximate the act of solace without being able, really, to achieve it. Ruth, meanwhile, yields precious little talk, opening up only to vent her plaintiff's frustration to the Fowlers' lawyer and to reassure her own best friend (yet another indelible sketch by Celia Weston) that there is no perfect way of respecting her family catastrophe. Mostly Ruth sinks into a bitter vigil in front of junk TV.

Now, some things to notice within the last paragraph. First, the film increasingly posits a dynamic between the Fowlers by which Matt, essentially decent but flailing at performed sensitivity, marvels uncomprehendingly at Ruth's tense silence. Second, Field's absorption in the Fowlers' marital stalemate means that Natalie, the young, prematurely weary lover that Marisa Tomei creates in the early scenes, suddenly isn't around much. The film has all but assumed the Fowlers' point of view, which is not an inveterate problem but still a disappointing retraction from In the Bedroom's first act, when different scenes originated from different narrative perspectives and no one's priorities were privileged. One of the best acted scenes in the film is a tense, early debate between Tomei's and William Mapother's characters about how to conduct themselves as a divorced couple. By the middle of the film, when Tomei has been revealed as a generic protagonist for the Fowlers' story and Mapother is reduced to a dimensionless baddie, the loss of narrative complexity is palpable.

Worse is that, even after In the Bedroom has contracted its lens to two characters, it continues voting people out of the plot. If Spacek's frightening retreat into herself whets the appetites of viewers like myself for some late-in-the-film revelations of her voice, then In the Bedroom, to its detriment, has other ideas. Instead the film sinks almost completely into Matt's perspective, awkwardly taking his side during the centerpiece scene when Ruth and Matt are finally duking it out. The wife accuses her husband of having been vicariously thrilled by his son's conquest of Natalie, and an array of scenes from the first hour back up her allegations. Matt counters that the circumstances of tragedy were created by Ruth's relentless control over her son and her husband, a charge which he substantiates by reference to an episode from the son's early childhood. In other words, the screenplay's "evidence" against Ruth—if indeed, In the Bedroom has to be a blame game at all—falls significantly beyond the purview of what the film has shown us. It is reaching, and not persuading, in attaching to Spacek's character a portion of culpability. Thus, the fact that the rest of the sequence captures Ruth's masochistic assent to Matt's attack is a startling and maddening turn. That Wilkinson subsequently inherits the entire last act of the picture is unforgivable, particularly when the narrative content becomes fixed in the thematically vapid context of vigilante revenge, seen from the outside.

It is clear to me that In the Bedroom's supporters find its dissection of middle-class psychology hypnotic. Spacek and Wilkinson's much-ballyhooed performances have been lavishly praised for their articulate silences, but for what reason are we to sanction In the Bedroom's transformation from an ensemble drama into a single character's quest for outrageous gratification? Why is the ultimate confinement of Tomei's entire plotline into a single admonishing gesture an admirable example of storytelling discipline? How is it that Wilkinson's face, no matter how subtly expressive, receives the burden of single-handedly reflecting an entire movie's worth of submerged emotions and moral ambiguities? Minimalist acting is only interesting—and it can, of course, be intensely interesting—when it isn't providing a desperate cover for thematic inscrutability. By a parallel formulation, cold compositions in blue, brown, and silver can expertly serve a story about an atmosphere suffused by grief, but if the plot grows too coarse the photography just seems self-important and pretentious, right up through a final shot of a sleeping neighborhood. My evolving sense that In the Bedroom was only interested in the private torment of one of its protagonists offered me a plenty good reason for disengaging my own interest from all of them. C+

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Picture
Best Actress: Sissy Spacek
Best Actor: Tom Wilkinson
Best Supporting Actress: Marisa Tomei
Best Adapted Screenplay: Todd Field and Rob Festinger

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture (Drama)
Best Actress (Drama): Sissy Spacek
Best Supporting Actress: Marisa Tomei

Other Awards:
New York Film Critics Circle: Best Actress (Spacek), Best Actor (Wilkinson), Best First Film
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Picture, Best Actress (Spacek)
National Board of Review: Best Director, Best Screenplay
Satellite Awards: Best Picture (Drama), Best Actress (Drama; Spacek), Best Adapted Screenplay
AFI Awards: Best Actress (Spacek)

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