In the Bedroom

Rated: R
Stars:   Sissy Spacek, Tom Wilkinson, Nick Stahl, Marisa Tomei, William Mapother
Director:   Todd Field
Writers:   Rob Festinger & Todd Field, based on the short story “Killings” by Andre Dubus

The film that has tongues wagging all across the industry is not the film they would have you believe it is. Quiet intensity may have been its aim, but agonizing boredom is its mark.

In expanding an 18-page short story into a feature length film, writer-director Todd Field’s intent was to delve into the psyches of characters caught in a nightmare of grief and guilt. But he has not created a structure that successfully supports his endeavor. His leisurely direction and hideously slow pacing betray the medium and his actors. Characterization and conflict play out with such lack of urgency that dramatic effect is diluted. Field’s style, therefore is the antithesis of drama. At 2 hours 11-minutes, In the Bedroom is far too long. His directorial debut would have been better served sticking with his source material and making a short film.

The story revolves around Matt and Ruth Fowler (Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek) in the small coastal town of Camden, Maine. He’s one of the town’s doctors and she teaches choral singing at the high school with an important recital coming up. Their college age son, Frank (Nick Stahl), is studying architecture but this summer he’s happily taken a job as a lobster fisherman, following in his grandfather’s footsteps. Frank is also seriously involved with a slightly older woman, Natalie (Marisa Tomei) who has two young children of her own. Their relationship is frowned upon by Ruth and tolerated amiably by Matt who takes vicarious pleasure in the younger man’s lifestyle. Ruth is afraid that Frank’s involvement will destroy his fast track career plans and she’s right because Frank’s already talking about delaying his return to school.

Harrowing repercussions result after the appearance of Natalie’s jealous and abusive husband Richard (William Mapother) from whom she’s been separated while awaiting a divorce. The events that occur forever change Matt’s and Ruth’s lives as they become trapped by their own searing emotions.

Spacek, Wilkinson, Stahl, Tomei – each gives us acting that is fluid, precise and painfully real. These are the film’s only strong elements and what some of the hoopla is about. The relationship between Frank and Natalie is totally believable and their work together plays well. One scene, between Matt and Ruth, in particular, although too long in coming, cuts to the chase in its brutal honestly as each tries to blame the other for what has happened. But it peters out too quickly and the only really exciting moment of the film is lost before having had a chance to develop fully. Other scenes, like one between Natalie and Richard played out in the kitchen where he appears uninvited, is too static with both of them seated at the kitchen table. With that kind of tension, it’s doubtful Natalie would want to be that close to the man. Oftentimes, the director lingers on static shots of walls, trees and the like. One elongated shot concentrates on Ruth sleeping in the back of a car while conversation from other occupants centers on nothing related to events. These are all purposeless and serve merely to stall the action when it really needs to be propelled.

Lotta says: I understand the director’s desire to make this a serious slice of dramatic life but his style is too weak to keep the audience fully involved. It’s a thoughtful approach that didn’t work and ultimately it’s the actors’ good work that suffers for it. The only reason this film appears on so many critics’ top ten lists is because they’ve been so blinded by the usual Hollywood fare of blockbusters, sequels and TV show remakes that they’ve forgotten what really good dramatic movies should look like.

Reviewed 12/29/01