Judge Dennis Prince has learned there are far more frightening things besides spectral apparitions or fanged beasts that might lurk in the basements of our lives. Beware.
"Tell me what 'dead' is."
"Well…'dead' is broken."
The Door in the Floor challenges Alfred Lord Tennyson's long-standing proclamation, "'Tis better to have loved and have lost than never to have loved at all." This film, adapted from a segment of John Irving's novel, "A Widow for One Year," questions Tennyson's adage directly, harshly, and relentlessly. In this film, we're asked to pass judgment on a couple who have endured one of the greatest horrors of life—the loss of a child—and decide whether their actions are reasonable, understandable, and ultimately forgivable. Before the film is over, you'll likely be struggling to provide a clear-cut verdict on their behavior and how they affect and manipulate others as they attempt to rejoin the world of the living.
Facts of the Case
Something's wrong between Ted Cole (Jeff Bridges, Seabiscuit) and his wife, Marion (Kim Basinger, Batman). Ted has become a successful writer of children's books, frequently touting his illustrated tales on talk shows and at private readings. Marion is aging gracefully, her radiant beauty still certain to stop men in their tracks. While outwardly it would appear that the winds of fortune have wafted the Cole's way, the truth is they have been dealt a devastating blow—the death of their teenage sons, twins Tom and Tim. While it's been several years since the tragedy, and Ted and Marion now have a precocious four-year-old Ruthie (Elle Fanning) to lovingly parent, neither has regained any sense of normalcy, and both are veering wildly into the realm of debilitating dysfunction.
Ted has become an unrepentant philanderer, using the façade of his artwork to lure women into posing for his impressionistic and erotic illustrations. Painting in the medium of squid ink, just as he does when illustrating his children's books, Ted employs the ruse to engage into tawdry love affairs until he's grown bored of the current "subject" of his renderings, electing to move on to another—mother and daughter arrangements seem to interest him most. When not feasting upon such carnal pleasures, Ted indulges himself with a steady supply of alcohol while steeped in his unabashed bohemian lifestyle, usually found draped in a simple one-piece robe or blithely showering outdoors after exerting himself in his private squash court. Marion, meanwhile, does little more than exist. Practically an emotionless shell of a woman, her drawn and blank expression stares resignedly from an otherwise striking countenance. She clearly regrets the decision to have Ruthie, realizing the futileness of attempting to fill the void left by the loss of her beloved twins while also fearful that such a tragedy could well strike again; she realizes her emotional paralysis and would prefer to not be a mother at all rather than be a bad mother. And then, Eddie O'Hare (Jon Foster) enters Ted and Marion's lives.
As a favor to a former associate in Exeter, New Hampshire, Ted agrees to hire 16-year-old Eddie, an aspiring young writer clearly in awe of Ted's achievements, for the summer. He's a quiet, well-mannered if not overly reserved, gangly teenager whose unassuming good looks bear a striking resemblance to one of the Cole twins. Eddie's reverence of Ted is almost immediately replaced with frustration and even revulsion over the writer's eccentric persona; he is equally yet conversely smitten by the haunting beauty of Marion. Eddie, however, has become a pawn being played by the discordant couple. Having just suggested a trial separation, Ted exploits the boy for meaningless tasks and to serve as hi personal chauffer, while Marion witnesses Eddie's emerging sexual desires and engages the boy in a carnal relationship of her own. While Eddie isn't learning much about writing this summer, he's unwittingly enrolled himself in a dark lesson of emotional warfare and human despair.
The Door in the Floor is a dark and disturbing film, of that there's little question; but it's an accomplished work, too. On just his second outing in the realm of filmmaking, director Tod Williams (The Adventures of Sebastian Cole) takes on the task of adapting a screenplay from John Irving's intricate A Widow for One Year, a complex narrative that spans the lifetime of its main character, plainly played out in three-act fashion. Boldly—and wisely—Williams (who is alternately known as "Kip" Williams) chose to adapt just the first 183 pages of the novel, essentially focusing his narrative on Act 1 in the life of Ruth ("Ruthie") Cole, the summer in which her parents separated after a fruitless attempt to reconcile themselves to the loss of the two brothers that Ruthie never knew. Williams is clever and capable in his redirection of the narrative to focus on Ted and Marion rather than on Ruthie. By this decision, we're presented an unflinching, unapologetic, and chillingly non-judgmental view of two lives torn apart by tragedy and the emerging lives—those of Ruthie and Eddie—that hang in the balance. Williams, therefore, reserves a front-row seat for each of us, allowing us to coldly witness the self-destruction of this affected couple, to see the depths to which they sink, to see their wanton manipulation of innocent bystanders in a sad and emotionally sadistic game of revenge. By its practically apathetic perspective, we viewers are kept at arm's length of the despair on display, wanting to somehow help yet unable to offer any assistance to the characters mired in their individual and collective turmoil. It's a frustrating situation from the viewer's standpoint, and that's clearly Williams' intent.
Turning attention to the actors now, it's conceivable that this may be among the best work ever to come out of Jeff Bridges. His task here was certainly a tall one: to present a plainly despicable individual—an adulterer, a drunkard, a shameless exhibitionist—in a way that makes him irresistibly likable, resist though you may. His patented smirk, his smiling eyes, and his precise delivery give us reason to sympathize and even pity this man who has lost so much in life, yet who has also inflicted so much pain of his own. His performance probably provides the most creepy element of the film—that a drunken, manipulative, unscrupulous wretch like this can make himself likeable as he finds success in writing (of all things) children's books.
"I'm just an entertainer of children…and I like to draw."
With that simple line—it's a mantra of sorts that he proclaims several times—Bridges as Ted Cole deftly and defiantly conveys and simultaneously conceals his sordid intentions; his unsavory physical and emotional prime movers. When accompanied with his dry, sardonic grin, it's downright chilling.
Likewise, Kim Basinger is dead-on in her portrayal of a near-lifeless soul, unable to cope and recover from one of life's most devastating blows. It becomes particularly unsettling to look at Basinger, still stunningly attractive at 51, as a character who cannot—dares not—let any ounce of liveliness stir or arouse the natural radiance she labors to keep repressed. The role of Marion certainly isn't glamorous, and Basinger seizes upon that, using her beauty to strike a sorrowful contradiction in a character who is unable to tap any of the joy of life. On the few occasions where we see Marion smile, and open up temporarily to expose the soft and caring nature of the woman, we immediately warm up to her only to be quickly cut off again as she withdraws into her troubled world.
As for young Jon Foster, his performance isn't as deep or as accomplished as those with whom he shares his scenes, yet he manages his task dutifully, almost admirably. He plays the socially clumsy teenager well, fumbling and muttering his way through his first meeting the Coles and realizing he's stepped into an intricate standoff between his employers. Most difficult, I'm sure, are the numerous sexual scenes in which he appears. When caught masturbating by Marion, Foster nails the utter devastation, the head-hanging shame of being discovered in such an embarrassing situation. His character must navigate the most tenuous developmental arc of any of the players, but in the end he seems unable, as an actor, to convince us that Eddie has truly transformed from boy to man. It's not a bad performance, and it's likely too much to ask of a young actor, but the cards were certainly stacked against him when he stepped in to the situation of being compared to the likes of Bridges and Basinger.
Much like its theatrical release, the DVD release of The Door in the Floor has come and gone without very much notice. Certainly there has been plenty of written commentary and criticism about the picture, yet it's doubtful that the mainstream retail outlets ordered any sort of supply of copies in anticipation of high public demand. Still, this is not a DVD to be missed, as the presentation is very competent. It begins with a confident anamorphic widescreen transfer, framed at 2.35:1. The source material is practically blemish-free, giving us a spotless image that has excellent detail and a consistent—yet intentionally subdued—color level throughout. The audio is presented in a nice Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that, while it never roars from all around (why would it in a picture like this?), delivers an enveloping soundstage made all the more pervasive by composer Marcelo Zavros' haunting score.
If you need a break from the perpetually discordant tone of the film (and you very well might), look to the plentiful extras on hand to help you understand the method and mindset of those involved in this production. The audio commentary gathers director Williams, director of photography Terry Stacey, editor Affonso Goncalves, composer Marcelo Zavros, and costumer Eric Daman. The five agree that this is the occasion to pop the cork on the bottle of champagne and toast their achievement—and so they do. Their comments largely center on the technical aspects of the film, so don't expect much in the way of witty exchanges. There's an interview with novelist John Irving during which he explains his experiences in meeting with and agreeing to Tod ("Kip") Williams' approach for adapting a portion of A Widow for One Year. He also offers additional insight into his intentions for the characters and the events that befall them in his original novel. Then, there's a segment from the Sundance Channel's program Anatomy of a Scene where we're guided through the construction and execution of the confrontation between Ted Cole and mistress Mrs. Vaughn. Finally, there's a featurette, "The Making of the Door in the Floor," that offers more insight into the production along with plenty of interview time with the leads. Naturally, it's something of a fluffy promotional piece, but it still holds your interest well enough.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite the deft screenplay and the solid performances all around, The Door in the Floor is not a film to eagerly anticipate nor one with which to gather the family together for a fun night of movie-watching. Rather, it's a disconcerting journey into the shattered souls of its principle characters and it bears unequivocal witness to the true ugliness—and creepiness—that humans are capable of assuming. A film that was barely noticed during its Summer 2004 theatrical release, you might have heard titillating tales of this picture that was heavy on sexuality. Indeed, there's plenty of sex on display here including Eddie masturbating, Eddie and Marion in full-view intercourse, and a brazenly full-frontal nude scene by Mimi Rogers as Mrs. Vaughn, Ted's current mistreated mistress. And while the thought of all this flesh and these potentially arousing situations may entice you to take a peek, I warn you that the manner in which all of it is presented truly leaves you feeling dirty for leering into the escapades of these very confused and ultimately pathetic individuals. This isn't to say there isn't some level of eroticism in play here, but don't be surprised if you suddenly lose your carnal urges just as quickly as they might have been aroused.
The Door in the Floor is an important film in that it offers a very deep exploration into the psyches of three souls adrift in a situation they never chose for themselves. As a narrative, it's a fully textured work that is heavy on character detail, motive, and reaction. It won't necessarily leave you happy in the end and it's not likely to incite repeat viewings, but it is a picture that will leave you pondering its content long after the final credits have rolled. Take care in how you approach this film, and then give in to its lead. It's a harrowing journey but one I feel "students of film" should take.
This court finds The Door in the Floor not guilty of any offense. If you feel the need to pass sentence upon the film, the filmmakers, and the actors involved based upon the potentially taboo situations—well, that's a judgment you'll have to make for yourself. Case dismissed.
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