In the Bedroom (Field, 2001) — 10 Years Later

After viewing In the Bedroom for the first time, I am left with one emotion that best describes this work – honesty. The story telling, the screenplay, direction and acting are all true, sincere and to the point; there is no pandering to base emotions with this story of how a middle-aged couple deal with a family tragedy.

The story is a simple one, set in a small Maine town where lobster fishing is a major industry and provides a bit of a hobby for Matt Fowler (Tom Wilkinson), a successful doctor. His teenage son Frank (Nick Stahl) is making some extra money for the summer as a fisherman, as he waits to head to college, where he hopes to be an architect. When he’s not busy working on designs or out fishing, he’s seeing Natalie Strout (Marisa Tomei), who is in her 30s and separated from her husband Richard (William Mapother).

Richard is an extremely jealous man who cannot bear to see anyone – much less a teenager – come in contact with his wife. One day when he comes to threaten Natalie, he sees Frank at the house and calmly, pulls out a gun and kills him.

The remainder of the film focuses on Matt and his wife Ruth, who works part time at the local school as the choir leader. Ruth is slow to get back into her chores after the loss of her son, while it’s just the opposite for Matt, who heads back to his practice very soon after the tragedy, as he can’t sit at home.

The couple exchange a few clumsy words now and then; for example, Matt asks Ruth when she plans on going back to work and Ruth asks Matt how his day went, but for some time, their conversation takes on little more than that tone or depth. It’s these awkward moments that are captured so beautifully in the screenplay of Robert Festinger and director Todd Field; their script is based on the story “Killings” by Andre Dubus.

This innocent tone can go on only so long however and one day in their kitchen, Matt and Ruth explode in anger at each other, which is a hidden agenda for their shared grief. Ruth accuses Matt of dealing with the death of their son by not talking about it. “What do you want me to do, bounce off the walls,?” Matt asks Ruth. “No Matt, that would require feelings. We don’t want you to hurt yourself,” is Ruth’s reply.

As this signature scene plays out, the couple get more personal in their attacks, as Ruth tells Matt that his way of grieving is to have a beer, while Matt tells her that she has no idea what he goes through. Director Todd Field films this scene in the kitchen in daylight as Ruth is washing dishes. Putting this intense conversation in an everyday setting makes the emotions of these two that much more direct and sincere. Adding to the depth of this scene is the fact that both Spacek and Wilkinson beautifully underplay these moments.

Yet this sequence takes on an even stronger tone when Ruth breaks a dish as she accuses Matt of encouraging their son to see Natalie; thus she believes that her husband is responsible for their loss. She stalks out of the kitchen with Matt following her into the study, where the sunshine is much more muted. Matt tells Ruth that it was her overprotectiveness that drove him to see Natalie and thus she is to blame for his death. “What was wrong with him,?” asks Matt and all Ruth can do in response to this question is to stare off into space. Their raw emotions, most assuredly hidden for years, have emerged and having talked about their feelings toward their son, the couple has faced their own weaknesses as husband and wife. This honesty is heartbreaking, but necessary, as they can now face the reality that their son’s slayer may only receive a short sentence in prison, as he is being charged with manslaughter instead of first-degree murder.

I mentioned honesty in the opening paragraph of this review and I must again praise the performances of Spacek and Wilkinson. These two performers don’t fall into the Hollywood definition of gorgeous, but they are dedicated actors who were perfectly cast in this film. Spacek tells so much with her eyes, while Wilkinson is a physical presence who brings a trust and decency to his character; his deep, soothing voice adds layers of irony to his final deed in the film. Spacek of course was a well-known actress at the time of this film, having won a Best Actress Oscar two decades earlier for Coal Miner’s Daughter. Yet that award did not lead her to a superstar career, as many of her subsequent roles were much smaller. One gets the feeling that Spacek herself, a down-to-earth Texas woman, may not have wanted as much of the Hollywood spotlight as she could have had, but it is a shame that she had to wait so long to be cast in such an outsanding role.

As for Wilkinson, this was his breakthrough role and like Spacek, was nominated for an Oscar for this film. Yet while he has kept himself busy in films over the past decade, it’s been primarily in supporting roles. It’s a mystery to me why Wilkinson hasn’t become more of a star, especially when you see his gem of a performance in Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer (2010).

As for Field, this was the first feature film he had directed (he had helmed a few shorts, but started out his film career as an actor); his achievement here was marvelous. Yet Field has only directed one feature film since, Little Children (2006) with Kate Winslet and Jeniffer Connelly. How this could happen after such an impressive debut remains a mystery to anyone who saw In the Bedroom back in 2001.

The emotions of In the Bedroom were spot on in 2001 and remain the same today, a decade later. Emptiness, fear and loss of love have rarely been treated in such a beautifully simple and honest way as they were in this film. Technology has improved over the past ten years in cinema, but the simple power of storytelling has not; that much is true after viewing this tender and moving film.

Tom Hyland has been an avid film buff for 40 years. He lives in Chicago and publishes the film blog Cinema Directives.

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