"I want you to stop acting like nothing's happened."—Ruth Fowler (Sissy Spacek)
Young lovers run through a field. They are filled with life. But in the real world, things are not so pretty. Frank Fowler (Nick Stahl) is an idealistic teenager about to head off for college. Natalie Strout (Marisa Tomei) has two children and is married to the jealous and violent scion of the town's wealthiest family (they own the local fish cannery). When an explosive confrontation between Frank and Richard Strout (William Mapother) ends in the teen's death, Frank's shattered parents, Matt (Tom Wilkinson) and Ruth (Sissy Spacek), nearly destroy themselves, and each other, trying to cope with the loss.
In the Bedroom, the debut feature from character actor Todd Field (best known as the pianist in Eyes Wide Shut), is that sort of movie you remember everyone talking about during Oscar time, but you probably never saw. Oscar is in love with "actor's movies" like this one. Ostensibly a collision between small town conservatism and the complex, real relationships people have, the film's first act has the appeal of the usual "pretty actors showing blue-collar pathos." The film is set in a Maine fishing town, and we are reminded repeatedly that this is Small Town America: backyard barbeques, smoky bars with wood paneling, and even one character defending his haircut from Supercuts. Many actors eat this stuff up, and most urban film critics like to pat themselves by showing empathy for the blue-collar life. Indeed Sissy Spacek and Marisa Tomei both already have Oscars for playing sympathetic blue-collar characters. And just in case you forget how noble the people of Camden, Maine, are supposed to be, Todd Field even has one of the fisherman quoting Blake and Longfellow.
But In the Bedroom is more than a validation of small town life. Rather, it wants to explore the emotional lives of these people beyond the surface trappings. Field's conceit in the first act of the film is to keep all the action offstage, allowing us to focus on the reactions of the characters instead. Even up until the fatal gunshot (which happens while the camera is following Natalie in another room), we are told more of what is happening than shown. Field wisely stays on the characters' faces, generating empathy for them right up until the tragic confrontation.
Then the film switches tracks and deals exclusively with the frustration of Matt and Ruth Fowler over their son's death. This middle section might be a textbook for actors in how to show the stages of grief right out of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. We get denial: Matt goes back to work and tries to pretend nothing has changed. We get depression: Ruth sits motionless in front of the television for weeks. We get bargaining: the parents haggle with the district attorney over Richard's punishment when it appears the charge will be no worse than manslaughter. And we get plenty of anger, as Matt and Ruth finally explode at each other over their "grieving contest," each blaming the other for Frank's death. Their own proximity to one another (the film's title refers to a lobster trap where multiple lobsters fight each other when caught inside) becomes threatening rather than comforting: they cannot go back and retrieve their son, but they cannot move forward while everything around them reminds them of his death. Something must be done to erase the pain.
But rather than acceptance (the final stage of Kubler-Ross' model), Field switches tracks once again in the final act, trying to generate closure for the audience by heading into thriller mode. I will refrain from revealing too much here, but it is quite clear by this act where the film wants to go: back into Hollywood dramatic territory with a cathartic act of justice. Certainly, the actors make it all look convincing and show all the emotional resonance they should while dealing with the brutal consequences of their actions. But after the middle section of the film worked so hard to imitate real life, the final act feels as artificial as the first.
The cast makes it all work. The characters (apart from Frank, who is all sunshine) are suitably haunted, and uniformly excellent performances by everyone involved carry it off in convincing fashion. If any single performance stands out, it is Tom Wilkinson, who melts into the character of Matthew Fowler with exceptional skill: this is one of those performances where you can see the character thinking—and sometimes even struggling to avoid thinking. Todd Field has presented an interesting challenge for the performers here: since most of the action is offstage, they are required to visibly remember and react to things we have not seen. Such a style is more characteristic of stage acting, where dialogue carries the story rather than direct action. I wonder if acting courses for theater might benefit from working with scenes from Field's screenplay, which often feels like reminiscent of Ibsen or Bergman.
Perhaps Miramax should have included the screenplay, or a commentary track with the director or actors discussing the challenges of the film. However, they include nothing. Not even a trailer (although there are some "sneak peeks" for other films, but that is advertising and not a bonus feature). The print has an anamorphic transfer and 5.1 soundtrack, and it looks and sounds fine—all of which should be obligatory for a brand new film. But this is a showcase for actors, not scenery, and some effort should have been made to supplement this film in order to highlight that fact.
In spite of Miramax's indifferent treatment of this disc, In the Bedroom features excellent performances and is well worth a look if you want to see some serious acting. I am not sure it holds up much to repeat viewings, unless you are studying it for your own aspiring acting career. Its narrative structure may be a bit forced, but the cast more than makes up the difference.
Todd Field and the cast are released with the court's condolences on their loss. Miramax is fined and ordered into counseling to overcome its denial.
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