In The Bedroom
Movie Review November 23, 2001 FILM REVIEW; When Grief Becomes A Member of the Family By STEPHEN HOLDEN Published: November 23, 2001 The typical American movie is so committed to noisy spectacle and shameless emotional button-pushing that when a film as profoundly quiet as ”In the Bedroom” comes along, it feels almost miraculous, as if a shimmering piece of art had slipped below the radar and through the minefield of commerce. This perfectly observed, wrenchingly acted drama about a middle-class New England couple coping with the murder of their 21-year-old son cuts to the quick. Its portrait of grief, rage, jealousy, flawed justice and revenge in a Maine lobstering town zeroes in on its characters’ tragic flaws, yet refuses to condemn them. It reminds us that, like it or not, the capacity to commit a crime of passion is part of being human. As the movie follows Matt and Ruth Fowler (Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek) dragging themselves through the crushingly empty weeks after their son’s murder, it finds in the hovering silences between words a depth of sorrow and stifled fury that few films have ever conveyed. The director Todd Field, who adapted the film from a story by Andre Dubus, understands that the essence of violence has little to do with Hollywood fireballs and the splatter of exploding bodies. It can accumulate over time and can be discerned in people’s clenched, drawn faces and choked-back words. Neither the killing itself nor the domestic disturbances that lead up it are shown in the film, yet it sustains an awful sense of foreboding and dread of the inevitable. Its final disquieting message suggests that middle-class gentility is only a shallow veneer that circumstances can strip away; that the most perfect revenge can be far from sweet; that our darkest passions after discharging themselves may still never fully subside. It is a message that seems especially pertinent since the events of Sept. 11. The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon left many Americans who had previously considered themselves gentle, nonviolent sorts unapologetically thirsting for eye-for-an-eye retaliation. ”In the Bedroom” begins with a romantic idyll in which the Fowlers’ golden son, Frank (Nick Stahl), runs through a field with his slightly older girlfriend, Natalie Strout (Marisa Tomei), and they tumble blissfully into the grass. Frank — a handsome, careless architecture student, home for the summer — is considering postponing his fast-track career plans to go into the lobster business, in which he has a temporary job that he loves. Natalie is a working-class woman with two young children who is separated but still not divorced from her abusive husband, Richard (William Mapother), a former high school athlete who can’t seem to get his life together. Matt and Ruth are at odds over their son’s relationship. While Matt, a prosperous local doctor, takes a vicarious enjoyment in the affair, Ruth sees Natalie as a threat to her son’s future and makes no bones about her disapproval. A proud, refined woman, highly competent but slightly cold, she teaches Eastern European folk songs to a high school chorus. All these tensions tug at one another beneath the placid surface of a family picnic — the film’s brilliant set piece — in which the dominant atmosphere is one of collective well-being. It is only when Richard makes an unexpected appearance that the tensions surface and warning signs flash. Although Richard wants desperately to reunite with Natalie, she has no interest in a reconciliation. But Richard can’t leave her alone. And after several skirmishes, he sneaks into a back door of the house where she is staying with her children and Frank, and shoots him to death in the kitchen. At first, the killing seems to be an open-and-shut case for which Richard stands to serve life imprisonment. But at the hearing, when Natalie truthfully testifies that she didn’t actually see the shooting, an indictment for manslaughter appears likely, with Richard having to serve only a few years’ time. The Fowlers are outraged. And the anguished heart of the film explores their growing anger and frustration at what seems to be an imminent miscarriage of justice. Ruth, rigid and defiant, is the more furious of the two. The Fowlers browbeat the district attorney, and turn to their best friends, the Grinnels (William Wise and Celia Weston) as emotional allies. As the Fowlers go about their daily business in Camden, their small town, their anger is continually pricked by glimpses of the killer, who has been released on bail. When they can no longer bury their feelings, Matt and Ruth turn on each other, each blaming the other for Frank’s death. The mutual bitterness they dredge up in one of the most emotionally brutal scenes of domestic strife ever filmed, is really the accumulated muck of any long-term relationship, When they’ve exhausted themselves, they can at least cling to each other in a way they hadn’t before. At this point the story makes a huge and dangerous leap. Late one night, as Richard is leaving his job in a bar on the outskirts of town, Matt appears and forces him into a car at gunpoint. It is the first step in an ingenious plan for revenge that involves kidnapping Richard and transporting him to a remote cabin in the Maine woods. While an ordinary movie might have hardened its heart and milked the rest of the story for easy suspense and a cheap emotional payoff, ”In the Bedroom” remains true to its commitment to explore every nuance of its characters’ emotional lives by turning the tables. It finds Matt’s mission every bit as ominous as Richard’s crime. The outcome leaves a deeply bitter taste. ”In the Bedroom” is the directorial debut of Mr. Field, who wrote the screenplay with Rob Festinger. Phrase by phrase, image by image, it is an astonishingly rich, detailed and grimly moving piece of work. Ms. Spacek’s performance is as devastating as it is unflashy. With the slight tightening of her neck muscles and a downward twitch of her mouth, she conveys her character’s relentlessness, then balances it with enough sweetness to make Ruth seem entirely human. It is one of Ms. Spacek’s greatest performances. Mr. Wilkinson’s shambling New England doctor is so quintessentially American in look and manner that you’d never guess he was a British Shakespearean actor. Ms. Tomei’s ruined, sorrowful Natalie is easily her finest screen role. The picturesque wind-burned town is as much a character as any individual, and the movie — which takes us aboard a lobster boat, visits the local cannery and stops in at stores and restaurants — almost makes us feel part of the community. It also reveals its pronounced class divisions. ”In the Bedroom” belongs to a handful of small, hardy North American films, among them ”The Sweet Hereafter,” ”Affliction” and ”You Can Count on Me,” whose flinty-eyed realism cuts against prevailing Hollywood froth. As small as their audiences may be, these are the films that stand the best chance of one day being regarded as classics. ”In the Bedroom” is as good as any of them. ”In the Bedroom” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It includes strong language, sexual situations and violence.
In The Bedroom
100 Boston GlobeJay Carr The surehandedly wrought, beautifully acted, almost unbearably tense In the Bedroom is a rare film, not to be missed. 100 Chicago Sun-TimesRoger Ebert There are scenes as true as movies can make them, and even when the story develops thriller elements, they are redeemed, because the movie isn’t about what happens, but about why. Read full review 100 The New York TimesStephen Holden When a film as profoundly quiet as In the Bedroom comes along, it feels almost miraculous, as if a shimmering piece of art had slipped below the radar and through the minefield of commerce. Read full review 88 Charlotte ObserverLawrence Toppman Field does what most American directors don’t: He shows people at work, in the day-to-day activity unmarked by excitement. Read full review 88 New York PostLou Lumenick Tremendously affecting on several levels, In the Bedroom is must-see viewing for anyone who complains Hollywood doesn’t make movies for grownups. Read full review 80 TV Guide MagazineMaitland McDonagh Meticulously observed and devastatingly well-acted. Read full review 50 Chicago ReaderRonnie Scheib A killer ending does not a movie make, and ultimately In the Bedroom may be more interesting to talk about than sit through. Read full review
In The Bedroom
”In the Bedroom” belongs to a handful of small, hardy North American films, among them ”The Sweet Hereafter,” ”Affliction” and ”You Can Count on Me,” whose flinty-eyed realism cuts against prevailing Hollywood froth. As small as their audiences may be, these are the films that stand the best chance of one day being regarded as classics. ”In the Bedroom” is as good as any of them.
”In the Bedroom” is the directorial debut of Mr. Field, who wrote the screenplay with Rob Festinger. Phrase by phrase, image by image, it is an astonishingly rich, detailed and grimly moving piece of work. Ms. Spacek’s performance is as devastating as it is unflashy. With the slight tightening of her neck muscles and a downward twitch of her mouth, she conveys her character’s relentlessness, then balances it with enough sweetness to make Ruth seem entirely human. It is one of Ms. Spacek’s greatest performances.