In The Bedroom
Todd Field's "In the Bedroom" takes us into the heart of a whirlwind that destroys a family, and then lets us watch as the remnants try to find a way to piece their lives back together again. From an Andre Dubus short story, the film is set in a coastal town in Maine, where young Frank Fowler (Nick Stahl), thinking about graduate school in architecture, is having a summer romance with Natalie Strout (Marisa Tomei), a mother with two young children and the estranged wife of Richard (William Mapother), the son of the town's leading family. Richard is a loose cannon, with an uncontrollable temper, and he will not let his wife go. In a jealous rage Richard murders Frank.
But the story of the film is not about Frank or Natalie or Richard; it is about Frank's parents, Matt (Tom Wilkinson) and Ruth (Sissy Spacek), who are uneasy about Frank and Natalie's affair and then disastrously vindicated when Frank is killed. We see most of the film through their eyes, and we are taken, with them, through the agony of grief. How can parents bury their child? It is an impossible burden to put on their marriage: Is someone at fault? Did you - or I - do something to set this up? Have you withdrawn from me? From life? From the marriage? Where is love when we need it? What, if anything, does love mean?
And then the film takes us to another place, a place where a peaceable man (Tom is a physician), a passive man, a man whose life's work is to heal, decides to act, in a way he had never even thought of before. He acts because he feels the system of justice in this case is not working in a just and proper way. He decides to become the instrument of justice.
But the acts we see in the film are not the most important part. Field, and co-screenwriter Robert Festinger, are more interested in watching Matt and Ruth's marriage - studying it, would be a better word. We are let into their house, their kitchen, their bedroom, where Field just keeps his camera running while they try to find some way out, some redemptive moment, some word, some act that will make them whole again. The two actors inhabit their roles well, though there is a disconcerting tic in the film's editing: somehow you feel that connecting tissue has been left out; we see Spacek smoking in almost every scene, scene after scene, shot after shot. Even a five-pack-a-day chain smoker doesn't do that in real life. It becomes almost more important than her voice, her actions, her trauma. We start watching the cigarette smoke instead of listening to and looking at what Field wants us to see and hear.
What works best in the film is Field's willingness to let scenes play themselves out. He doesn't cut on the crucial line, he lets us in on the pauses, the reactions, even the passivity of real life and real people. He doesn't overdramatize, and never resorts to clichés of filmmaking. Young Frank, enjoying the sex with Natalie, finds more in her than just sex and begins thinking about leaving school for a life on the water, and of marrying her. But that would go against his parents' hopes for his career. The conflicts are not simplified or minimized. Natalie, at a crucial moment in the plot, finds herself unable to surmount her own insecurities. Even Richard, the murderer, is a prisoner of his own fatal weakness - the inability to grow into a man. And Ruth and Matt's long marriage may crumble because neither of them feels able to act as other than a victim.
These are important and believable points, and the film's strength is to allow us into all of them. There are some needless plot holes toward the end, that might have been fixed with just a few more minutes of screen time; but overall the film has power enough and a rare empathy that carries us over the bumps.