Starring: Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek, Marisa Tomei, Nick Stahl, William Wise, William Mapother, Celia Weston
Rated R for Some Violence and Language
Note: This review contains spoilers. However, I don't think that knowing a key event that happens part way through the film will fundamentally alter the viewing experience. In fact, it could be argued that it would be enhanced.
How often have we seen this story? Not in specifics, but certainly in general thrusts. Or at least we would have, if we had bothered to look. No, stories like this are born with the byline and die with the final sentence. At least they do for us. For the people more intimately involved, it's a different story.
Matt Fowler (Wilkinson) is a doctor in a Maine fishing village. His wife Ruth (Spacek) is a music teacher at the local high school. Their son Frank (Stahl) is applying to graduate school. Frank has what he calls a "summer thing" with local beauty Natalie Strout (Tomei), although it may be more than that. Ruth would prefer him to continue with his education while Matt is encouraging, and may in fact be living through it vicariously. Enter Natalie's soon-to-be ex, rich jerk and wife abuser Richard Strout (Mapother). This cannot end well.
Although the film's main plot is touched off by Frank's murder by Richard, "In the Bedroom" is not a crime story. Instead, it's about grief. Actor turned writer/director Todd Field (he was Beltzer in "Twister" and Tom Cruise's friend Nick in "Eyes Wide Shut") casts a light on how people behave when they are grieving and how others behave around them. This is not a narrative-oriented film; it's a study of human behavior.
The performances in this film are stunning. Tom Wilkinson can almost singlehandedly make a movie worth seeing (exception: "Unfinished Business"), and "In the Bedroom" is just one of many examples why. After his son's death, he's at a loss for what to do with himself. He has no passion for his work, his friends act like he has some sort of contagious disease, and worse, he's filled with constant reminders of his son (I'd argue that Field overplays this element, but not by much). It's a tightly controlled performance, and Wilkinson is wonderful. Opposite him is Sissy Spacek, who plays Ruth. Ruth is not an easy person to like. She's arrogant, curt, and controlling. However, Spacek makes pains to make the audience sympathize with her. After all, she did just lose her son to a relationship with a woman that, in her view, he shouldn't have been involved with.
What is interesting is how Matt and Ruth avoid talking about Frank's death. They try to carry on like normal, but obviously they cannot. Sometime the monster is going to have to come out in the open, and when it does, it's brutal.
The other two important members of the cast are Marisa Tomei and Nick Stahl. Marisa Tomei plays Natalie as a woman who views Frank with two forms of love: maternal and romantic. This isn't as twisted as it sounds, trust me. What I mean is that because he is considerably younger than her, she harbors a protective instinct towards him. And yet, when it comes to Richard, she is vulnerable and relies on him for support. By the same token, she has those same blissful, manic, hypersexual feelings that happen with young love. Nick Stahl has what is arguably the most difficult role: he must create a strong, positive presence with limited screen time (Frank dies by the end of the first half hour). Stahl plays it beautifully, capturing the essence of youth, the promise of a future, and enough understanding for his death to leave its effect until the end credits roll. Wilkinson, Spacek and Tomei were accorded with Oscar nominations; it's arguable that Stahl deserved one as well.
A movie like this is an actor's dream. The script allows them to convey a wide spread of human emotion, expressing both passion and subtlety. In many ways, what goes on behind the words is as important, if not more, than what is said. Director Todd Field captures the awkwardness that the Fowlers feel around other people, not knowing how to react, or even how they're supposed to react. The other characters are similarly confused.
The film is a little long and repetitive, and the fracture between Matt and Ruth is wrapped up too neatly. But those are minor blemishes and easily ignored (in fact, they're easily missed considering how effective the film is). But where the film goes wrong is in the final act. The actions of the characters are understandable, but it offers closure to a story that shouldn't have it. Many stories do best with open endings. This is one of them.
It is said that the worst thing that can happen to someone is to lose a child. "In the Bedroom" shows why.