movie review by
David Ng


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In the Bedroom

In the Bedroom opens on an idyllic note: a young couple cavorts along a grassy hillside, falls, and embraces lustily. The boy, we soon learn, is an architecture student named Frank Fowler (Nick Stahl). On the verge of manhood, or perhaps unable to say goodbye to adolescence, Frank is home for the break and appears fairly determined to make the most of what may be his final summer of true freedom. The girl, however, is clearly too old to be called a girl: Natalie (Marisa Tomei) is a mature woman in her thirties, a single mother with two small boys, who works as a cashier at a convenience store. The lines on her face suggest a troubled past, but for this moment at least, Natalie has forgotten her worries and simply lets Frankís boyishness wash over her. Their age difference is apparent even to them but itís something that theyíve chosen to overlook, a troublesome thorn that they are unwilling to let spoil what is clearly a summer fling for Frank, and a blooming romance for poor Natalie.

This prelude, shot and edited with a keen eye for the unspoken, is everything that the rest of the movie tries but fails to be. Adapted from the short story "Killings" by the late Andre Dubus, In the Bedroom becomes increasingly declarative, articulating in obvious terms what mightíve been better left unsaid, or unseen. The parents, Matthew and Ruth Fowler (Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek), are drawn into Franksí March-May love affair almost against their will, and they are left to pick up the pieces after its violent conclusion. Matthew is a doctor, and in this small, coastal Maine town, heís also one of its most upstanding citizens. Ruth is a high school chorus teacher, pleasant and well-mannered, though prone to passive-aggressive badgering, no more so than when she talks to Frank about his relationship with Natalie. Thereís more than a hint of class-ism in Matthew and Ruth, but other than that, theyíre a bit bland. Field paints them as archetypes (whether itís deliberate or not remains unclear), and in one early scene, they preside over a neighborhood barbecue like suburban royalty. Itís hard to work up much pathos for characters whose biggest problem is their sonís girlfriend, and Field, with his repetitive displays of small town togetherness, does little to further their cause.

When tragedy does strike, in the form of Natalieís ex-husband Richard (William Mapother), the Fowlerís domestic life cleaves unexpectedly into two messy pieces. Matthew returns to his medical practice as soon as he can, channeling his emotions through work and, in after hours, beer. Ruth becomes a recluse, planting herself in front of the television set and chain-smoking Marlboro Lights. Field observes their marital disintegration with patience and detachment (he makes abundant use of elliptical fade-outs), but that doesnít save it from feeling like a by-the-books account of mutual alienation. The Fowlers werenít an interesting couple before the tragic turn of events, and they certainly arenít after it. Field, who co-wrote the screenplay with Robert Festinger, wants desperately to explore grief, in all of its manifestations, but heís a touch too eager, lingering meaningfully over a window sill here, a forlorn expression there, as if he were the first person to discover this profoundly dark state of being. Wrapping himself, and his gifted group of actors, in the meaningful solemnity of it all, Field arrives unprepared for the Fowlerís big fight scene, which, when it does come, feels like a hurried synthesis of a lot of smaller scenes that he had somehow forgotten to shoot.

To be fair, the movie makes several valiant attempts at humor. Matthew and Ruthís fight is rudely interrupted by a school girl selling candy door-to-door. And in another sequence, the Fowlerís go on a wooded retreat with their kooky neighbors who, in their efforts to be sensitive to the grieving couple, canít stop themselves from committing one faux pas after another. These scenes are well-intentioned, as is the movie as a whole, but they fall curiously flat. They lack the kind of throw-away spontaneity that this kind of humor needs. Field is clearly a meticulous director, but heís self-satisfied too, and itís this combination that gives his movie its smug, over-studied quality. Each scene congratulates itself after traveling its well-planned trajectory. At its worst, the movie strangles what might have been great naturalistic performances from Wilkinson and Spacek, both of whom possess a down-to-earth affability but who are forced to parade from one emotion to another with their heads down. Only Marisa Tomeiís Natalie makes any sense. Natalie was flirting with disaster at the beginning of the movie, and by its end, is at the edge of the abyss. Tomei is convincingly scattered, delivering her lines in uncertain, halting bursts. Unlike the Fowlers, Natalie has everything to lose.

In the Bedroom might have been content to end there, with the Fowlersí marriage lying in ruins, and Natalie hanging on for her dear life. But it continues for thirty more minutes or so, swerving unexpectedly into a lurid revenge fantasy and ending on a note of deceptive calm. None of it is convincing primarily because Matthew wouldnít have the guts to do what the script dictates. Wilkinson, for his part, makes the most of the situation by downplaying it. He never raises his voice or screws up his face. Heís in a real daze and itís as if he canít believe what heís doing. If anybody could pull it off, it would be Ruth, who, by this point in the story, has hardened into a spiteful woman suffering from acute paranoia. Field sets the climax at night and in the woods, suggesting that it may all be just a bad dream. But it isnít, of course, and the next morning, the Fowlers are already forcing themselves to return to an altered state of normalcy.

Itís strange that we should feel the most sympathy for the Fowlers only after theyíve committed a terrible act, an act which Field is careful to frame not as an act of revenge, but as an act of desperation to save a marriage. Itís a beautifully ironic twist. Itís understated too, at least until the final scene which Field tops off with a bit of self-important symbolism: Matthew, who had wounded his hand during a fishing trip, slowly pulls the band-aid off of the cut. It could have been a nice little symbol, a barely noticeable homily about healing. But as with most of the movieís details, Field foregrounds it so that itís impossible to miss. So much of the movie is like this: quiet and observant, but self-consciously so. With its every subtlety highlighted, In the Bedroom gives its audience less and less work to do until ultimately, the movie is defeated by the sheer number of responsibilities it has assumed.

[rating: 2 of 4 stars]