In the Bedroom
review by Gianni Truzzi, 28 December 2001

Some films may just be too good for an audience. That's not meant as an elitist statement, but an expression of despair for staggeringly beautiful work that deserves a better reception than you know it's going to get. It's a fact of American life that the surest way to ensure that only a handful of people will see or read something is to tag it with a label of highest praise: to call it literary.

The astounding debut of first-time director Todd Field, In the Bedroom, has already won the Sundance Special Jury Prize and the New York Film Critics Circle Awards for its lead actors Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson, the L.A. Film Critics Award for best film, and has been nominated for three Golden Globes. A reviewer in the hinterland, where the film receives a late broad release, has never felt more irrelevant. What else can be said, when the major critics have already praised it for its Wyeth-like visuals and emotionally tortured portrayals of a family?

Based on a short story by Andre Dubus, Ruth (Spacek) and Matt Fowler (Wilkinson) are an educated-class couple in small-town Maine whose grown son Frank (Nick Stahl) is involved with Natalie (Marisa Tomei), a young, nearly-divorced mother of two. Frank tells his worried mother that it's "a summer thing" but clearly more serious than he lets on -- the aspiring architect even considers delaying his career a year. He's not fooling anyone, least of all Natalie's estranged and violent husband Richard Strout (a wonderfully creepy William Mapother), the son of the local canning baron.

The plaudits for Spacek and Wilkinson are well deserved. As Ruth, Spacek is a world away from the hysterics that earned her initial acclaim in Carrie, playing a New England mother who roils with essays unspoken. No wonder that Natalie is frightened of her; the working-class girl's attempts to make innocent conversation at a picnic are quashed by Ruth's gulf-widening explanation that she did her thesis on Eastern European folk music. Her controlling nature is subtle, as in the late-night sandwich she makes for Frank, insisting "you must be hungry." Yet these are small things, human, forgivable and rooted in love, never releasing us from sympathy. Her husband Matt, meanwhile, is a true man of Maine, a family doctor descended from lobster fisherman who loves his son and happily envies his youth. Like a lobsterman, he navigates both the warning buoys between his wife and son, and the shoals of his own recriminations.

The story turns when, as we know is inevitable, Frank is killed by the jealous husband Richard, and Field's skill as a director comes fully into bloom. We are given a surprising story, in which grief is not, as it is so often simplistically portrayed, a hovering shadow, but a force that pushes its bearers like a gale-force wind. Field shows us not just a couple trying to cope with loss, but a community that can't quite deal with it either -- or, more specifically, doesn't know how to deal with them. Their struggle to function in everyday ways, like mowing the lawn or having breakfast, which Field shows us in brief, blackout vignettes, takes on the weight of boulders. The couple's frustration at the slow, unwieldy justice system that can't seem to grant them any satisfaction is manifested, for most of the film, without words, such as Spacek's descent into chain smoking or Wilkinson's glassy stare at the corporate truck bearing the name "Strout" -- the surname of his son's killer. These low-key scenes do little to prepare you for the film's third act, in which revenge is neither sweet nor satisfying.

Most astounding is Field's minimal touch. There is very little sound throughout the film, with the only memorable soundtrack the Balkan women's chorus that Ruth conducts for a Labor Day program, which Field uses to haunting effect. Unlike many new directors, he is willing to hold a shot, and to rely on his actors to do their work on his behalf (much like, as has been pointed out by others, Stanley Kubrick, in whose Eyes Wide Shut Field acted). Just as impressive is Field's establishment of place, the village of Camden, Maine, by the repeated use of the same establishing locales such as the white arch announcing "Camden," the cannery or the lobster docks. Anyone who has spent time in a small settlement can recognize the importance of regular, recurring landmarks seen every single day. It's Field's simplicity and elegance that makes this film recognizable as literature.

It's interesting to note that Bedroom is accompanied on its nationwide release by The Shipping News (also reviewed on this site), based on another literary source, the Pulitzer-winning novel by E. Annie Proulx. The difference between the approach of the two films, with Lasse Hallström's sweeping cinematography versus Field's introspective reliance on character, only underscores the distinction between films that want to be literature and a film that truly is.

Yet, the curse of literature is that, barring a feature on Oprah, it goes tragically unread, and the same may often be said of good films like these. With its initial release in New York and L.A., Bedroom has to date grossed less than $1 million, and even though the rest of us now get a chance to see it, the bitter business truth of this kind of film is that they actually get most of their box office in a handful of major cities. The low take suggests that this worthy work will lose money. That's the curse of the literary, I suppose, and that uncomfortable fact spurs a grief of its own.

Directed by:
Todd Field

Sissy Spacek
Tom Wilkinson
Nick Stahl
Marisa Tomei
William Mapother

Written by:
Robert Festinger
Todd Field

R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult





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