"In the Bedroom," the directorial debut of actor Todd Field (1999's "Eyes Wide Shut
"), is a stirring drama so adept in its view of human nature that it disappoints by abruptly cutting to the end credits without adequately wrapping up many of its issues and a key supporting character. What comes before the 20-minute finale--wrong-headed enough to at least partially ruin much of what has come before--is, nonetheless, an acting tour de force that avoids predictable melodrama for a more honest, moving, and unsentimental portrayal of a married couple slowly degenerating after a tragedy hits their home.
Matt (Tom Wilkinson) and Ruth Fowler (Sissy Spacek) live a peaceful, amiable life in their Maine home, where Matt is a doctor and Ruth teaches a high school chorus class. When their teenage son, Frank (Nick Stahl), begins a romance with older, single mother Natalie Strout (Marisa Tomei), he informs his parents that it is nothing more than a summer fling and he will be attending an Ivy League school in the fall. Matt admires his son for the love he and the kind-hearted Natalie share, but Ruth can't help but be suspicious of the relationship, fearing that Frank may give up his bright future for a woman at least ten years older than he.
A tragic circumstance occurs at the 40-minute mark of "In the Bedroom," and it is best to not give away the particulars of what follows. Suffice to say, the until-then happy Matt and Ruth find their communication suddenly broken, and their marriage stunted. Dark emotions and bitter feelings between the two bubble just beneath the surface, threatening to, at any moment, explode.
Much of "In the Bedroom" is deceptive and intentionally understated, but also unavoidably compelling. The human condition portrayed in the characters of not only Ruth and Matt, but also Natalie, feel genuine and heartwrenching. Based on the short story by Andre Dubus, writer-director Field and co-writer Robert Festinger display a keen understanding of the various ways people react to a sudden affliction hitting their lives. Seemingly uneventful scenes fade in and out of black, as they pave the way for the centerpiece of the picture--a moment of overwhelming anger and unavoidable hostility that Ruth and Matt cannot avoid for one more second.
Sissy Spacek (1998's "Affliction
") and Tom Wilkinson (2001's "Black Knight
") give the kind of impassioned, powerhouse performances that are rightfully remembered during the awards season each year. As longtime married couple Ruth and Matt Fowler, their relationship is never less than convincing, particularly in the later sections when their true feelings about the other's personality and coping methods come flowing out. Wilkinson's Matt is the more gentle and mild of the two, while Spacek's astute presentation of Ruth is one of a woman being ripped open inside to such a degree that she can only feel hatred for those around her.
As Natalie Strout, the woman who unsuspectingly gets between the college-bound Frank and his parents, Marisa Tomei (2001's "Someone Like You
") is exceptional. This is Tomei's strongest part since her Oscar-winning turn in 1992's "My Cousin Vinny," and she evokes both regret and painful guilt in her supporting part. Tomei shares two scenes in the latter half--one with Matt (played poignantly to the song, "Baby, I Love Your Way" by Peter Frampton) and one with Ruth--and the differing outcomes of her encounter with them is startlingly unpredictable. What is a shame, then, is Tomei's curious disappearance in the last quarter of the film. She is never heard from or talked about again, leaving Natalie a vital player who unsatisfyingly receives zero closure.
The turn-of-events at the end of "In the Bedroom" are reminiscent of 1996's "Eye for an Eye," the Sally Field drama where she seeks revenge on her daughter's murderer when the courts prove unhelpful. In "Eye for an Eye," director John Schlesinger really dug underneath the Field character to make her actions both understandable and fitting. In "In the Bedroom," it is as unconvincing as the rest of the film is accurate, and doesn't sit well with the subtle tone of what has come before.
"In the Bedroom" is being widely acclaimed as one of the better independent films of 2001, but it ultimately is too flawed to receive such an honorable distinction. The ending has not been clearly thought out by director Field, leaving the strength of the picture--the top-notch performances--appear even more impressive in comparison to the manipulative story developments. As a tragic slice-of-life about loss and redemption, "In the Bedroom" works astoundingly well. But when it goes into thriller mode as the film draws to a close, it sadly loses the potential it so obviously once held.
©2002 by Dustin Putman