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In the Bedroom

(2001)

Directed by

Todd Field

 In the Bedroom Poster

Review by Zach Saltz

Posted - 9/20/09

 

There may be more explosive movies, like Schindler’s List and GoodFellas, that are spectacular in their vision and audacity.  There may be more subtle, heartbreaking movies, such as The Best of Youth and The Man in the Moon, whose characters are so well developed that the viewer may feel slighted at the movie’s finale and at the sudden, solemn realization that these screen personae will be soon abandoned forever.  There may be movies with great speeches, like The Grey Zone, or movies with more quirky, naturalistic characters, like Fargo , or better-shot movies (Days of Heaven) or more profound movies elucidating the profundities of the human existence (My Dinner With Andre).  There was once even a movie that brought me to outright tears – something that has yet to be repeated (Jeux Interdits).  But none of those movies are perfect.  Todd Field’s In the Bedroom is, and it is in that perfection – that absolute void of a single false note, a single offbeat or unusual line or framing shot, a single glance or expression of the characters that could possibly strike the viewer as untrue – that makes it the best movie I have ever seen.

In the Bedroom.  The title is cloyingly evocative, but not of the sexual nature we might assume.  The meaning and significance of the title is explained in an early scene (when two male lobsters are put in the same trap as a single female, and the violence between the creatures which will soon ensue).  But this explanation is plebian, at best.  The film is about sex, but not intercourse.  It is about the disconnect between men and women, and how external events reveal internal truths, leading the male and female personae closer together.  The characters here are trapped in a vortex of feminine domesticity, and the only way to escape this claustrophobic milieu is by partaking in male physical aggression.  The façade of happiness rings so often in this film, and it is painful and inevitable to see it crumble at the hands of the truth slowly coming out.

In the Bedroom begins in the early days of summer and ends at the beginning of the impending autumn, and in the course of that mythical time, the motions of love, grief, and revenge are examined.  These are the film’s three movements, and like a baroque symphony, each movement has a different texture and atmosphere.  One of the delights of In the Bedroom is how as a result of these three distinct movements the story is unpredictable and effortlessly compelling; the viewer simply has no idea what to expect next.  Unlike the Andre Dubus short story from which it is based (entitled “Killings”), which uses a framework of looking backwards from the present events – which eventually evolve into the third and final act of the story – director Field opts to tell the film version in chronological order, to astonishing effect; quite simply, it is the most unpredictable film I’ve ever seen.  The “looking backwards” effect may have worked, but Field’s straightforward retelling is relentlessly compelling: Like many of the great classical symphonies, the film simply gets better as it goes along, with each new and unexpected venture into uncharted narrative terrain.  So many films begin strong and get weaker as they go along.  This motion picture begins strong, never falters, and actually gets better as it moves along, until it reaches its thrilling final climax.

The film stars Nick Stahl as Frank Fowler, an ambitious college student studying architecture, who is romantically involved with an older, divorced woman, Natalie (Marisa Tomei) complete with two children and a resentful ex-husband who wants her back (William Mapother).  The film’s opening scene shows the two lovers frolicking in a summer field.  “I can feel my life, you know,” observes Natalie prophetically as the two caress each other.  This scene is the epitome of carefree lovers escaping from the turmoil that will soon encapsulate and ultimately destroy their lives and the lives of those around them, but there is no indication, from the opening half hour of the film, that In the Bedroom will in any way be a tragedy.

The young Fowler character lives with his parents, Matt and Ruth (Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek).  They are both Ivy League-educated professionals (he is the town physician, she is a high school choir director) who take pride in their intellect and perhaps look down slightly at Natalie, who did not complete college and works as a cashier at a convenience store.  They both worry that their son is getting too involved with her – that    “Do you really think he loves her?” Ruth asks Matt as they lay in their bed one evening.  “Girls always have,” sheepishly replies Matt.

But the merry summer romance is interrupted by the unwelcome presence of Natalie’s violent ex-husband, Richard Strout (William Mapother), who refuses to accept that his wife no longer loves him.  An early encounter between the two of them at a kitchen table reveals the startling dynamics of their relationship; Natalie, timid and unsure, defines what a good father is, while Richard ruthlessly mocks and scorns her.  Strout then proceeds to provide one of the key ideas of the film: That his intentions have always remained the same – to protect his own self-interests – while the circumstances in his life have changed around him.  This notion of individualism vs. external events will become a central question of the film.

Then, something happens – something of significant magnitude that should not be divulged in a review of the film.  But it is safe to say that this shattering event changes the entire feel and purpose of the motion picture.  No longer is In the Bedroom about the haphazard ways young adults try to break from the grasp of their overprotective parents, or how    Instead, the film examines the way grief overtakes the lives of characters whose previous actions could be defined broadly as “good” and “moral.”  It deals with characters trying desperately to preserve normalcy in the wake of enormous tragedy, and to the extreme measures that it sometimes takes to ensure it.  Like all the great character studies in films, the second part of In the Bedroom unblinkingly shows the painstaking attempts of the characters to

The final act of the film again takes an entirely new direction, this time focusing on the necessary actions done to rectify the characters’ ennui through the second half.  The final part culminates in an act that few audience members will see coming, not because the event itself is unforeseeable, but because we don’t believe the character involved would have the power to indulge in such a shocking act.  The film is not about how external situations altar our internal urges, but how feminine domesticity and complacency cover up male aggression, until the rare instance comes along when the aggression is not only condoned, but warranted by the female ethos.  Like Macbeth, In the Bedroom ends with us questioning who had all the aggression in the first place.  Is it that the male ego has fallen victim to himself, or the female internal anger has impressed itself upon a hapless man who simply wants to please her?  What are the true intentions of the characters by the end of this picture?  If you have not seen this film, such questions sound vague.  But by the end of this picture, it will be impossible not to debate its polarizing and fiercely divisive turn of events.

The acting in In the Bedroom is, simply put, the best ensemble acting one is likely to find in a motion picture.  Nick Stahl plays young Frank as innocent, but not naïve; someone who wants complete autonomy without completely realizing the ramifications of it.  William Mapother is ominous and lucid, but in a painful scene toward the end of the film that involves a framed picture (rarely has a film used motifs and symbolism so well), we see the faintest bit of humanity in this supremely flawed man.  Sissy Spacek towers through the second portion of the film, and many scenes are focused purely on her grief.  She quietly tries to return to her daily routine, but the breadth of the tragedy is too much to overcome.  There is a stunning scene where the characters around her laugh, and the camera focuses on her discomfort with humor at the time of grief.  Should she be blamed for her inability to get over the tragedy?  Perhaps she feels more responsible than she leads on.

Marisa Tomei, in perhaps the film’s most difficult role, brings sympathetic vulnerability yet equally pathetic naivety to Natalie.  Her character is polarizing (right down specifically to the gender lines of the viewer – men seem to pity her, women tend to despise her).  Either she is too stupid to realize that her relationship is jeopardizing the well-being of her and her children, or she is so self-centered that she is willing to compromise all of Frank’s hopes and dreams.  And yet, we sympathize with her because Frank is the first man in her life who seems to give her any sort of respect.  She is a good woman whose frustrations cannot be realized because of her social standing with the Fowlers.

But the film belongs to Wilkinson, a Brit whose solemn eyes and wary posture suggest the veneer of a hard-working, middle-aged man no longer content with the successes of his own life, but who would rather get personal fulfillment from witnessing the successes of his son.  An early scene reveals this when he takes an early lunch break to go down to the pier to see Frank’s catch for the day.  He is more interested in lobsters than surgery, and middle-age banality has taken a toll on him.  Does he vicariously live through Frank, as Ruth accuses him of?  Does he have a choice?  When the dreams and hopes of children are either achieved or lost, than the hopes of their parents die with them.

Field is masterful at using symbolism and central motifs throughout the whole of the story.  Windows, for example, play an integral role, whether it is Frank Fowler looking out the window to find Richard Strout, or whether it is the windows in the kitchen we look through when we see a dispute erupt between the vulnerable Fowler couple.  The camerawork here, by Antonio Calvache, captures the mood of confrontation by using a hand-held, but uses starkly realistic montage to render a seamless illustration of pain and fear.  The music, by Thomas Newman, is sparingly used, but when it is, it powerfully reinforces the somber atmosphere.

Like all psychologically taut masterpieces, In the Bedroom will invariably raise questions, discussions, and arguments among its viewers.  I feel the central theme of the movie can be best summed up in a speech given by Strout to Natalie early in the film: “I don’t change; the people around me change.”  The film argues that we are all capable of depraved acts of violence.  Society tells us not to act upon those impulses.  But when society fails us by letting the guilty go free and rendering justice benign, our personal impulses are the governing dynamic in the way we act.  This is true natural law – fear and aggression, and no man-written law can prevent it.

Above all else, In the Bedroom takes tremendous risks in telling its story.  It offers no easy solutions, no characters who are holistically, altruistic good or brutally, wholly evil, but rather, characters that lie within a broad spectrum of morality that remains unchanging even through the most trying of circumstances.  The brilliance of the film is that it is able to portray the sympathetic Matt Fowler character as a lovable doctor, husband, and father – but not without the capacity to be a cold-blooded killer for the name of what he considers just.  We see Ruth Fowler as a caring and effortlessly devoted wife and mother – who is also bitter, remorseful, and perpetually unpleased at the lack of prudent thinking on the part of those around her.  Even the supposedly fractured marriage of Richard and Natalie can be seen in an entirely new light in a key scene toward the end of the film, when Matt stumbles across a certain object that would have one believe that the Strout family was, at one point like the Fowlers, functional, tight-knit, and happy.

I saw In the Bedroom when I was just shy of 15 years old.  I remember the occasion vividly, watching it with my parents in a crammed theater.  Afterwards, we discussed the movie.  While they liked it, even though they felt it was too depressing, it was clear that the film had done something to me that it had not done for them.  The events of the story and the characters had taken me to places that I could not have imagined the power of cinema ever to have taken me before.  The film transfixed me.  I don’t watch it too often for fear of seeing it too much, or familiarizing myself to too great an extent with it.  But each time I return to it, I am constantly reminded of the power of cinema to tell a great, pure story, and mold powerful and explosive responses from its audience.  The bridge between spectator and stage has never been so thin.

Rating:

# 1 on Top 100

# 1 of 2001

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