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In the Bedroom   A-

Miramax Films

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Todd Field
Writers: Robert Festinger, Todd Field (based on the short story by Andre Dubus)
Cast: Sissy Spacek, Tom Wilkinson, Nick Stahl, Marisa Tomei, Deborah Derecktor, Veronica Cartwright, William Mapother.

Review by Jeremiah Kipp

Not surprisingly, the Miramax marketing team committed a grave disservice to In the Bedroom, Todd Field's chilly depiction of stifled New England grief. They've successfully given away the opening-act twist that rocks Field's carefully etched family dynamic, leading to a memorably ambivalent series of domestic rituals used as shields to mask introverted anguish. There's a frustrating assumption that the art-house crowd needs to be appeased by hints of violence, a key layer but hardly the most compelling one.

Miramax, no doubt, picked up Bedroom at Sundance because of justifiable Oscar buzz surrounding the tremendous Sissy Spacek and her even better co-star Tom Wilkinson. After rumors of Harvey Weinstein's desire to make the harrowing climax more fuzzy 'n' warm (or at least palatable) and shortening the length (2 hours), Field successfully maneuvered his movie into theaters the way he intended it. That came with a price: deceptive false advertising that equates his sharp-edged family drama with glib thrillers like The Deep End.

The ideal circumstances for In the Bedroom were along the festival circuit, minus preconceptions. Miramax used to be quite good at preserving secrets, though Neil Jordan's The Crying Game might have been more out of financial necessity (mystery-suspense is an easier sell than "the she is a he").

In the Bedroom shares with The Crying Game an ever-shifting structure, appearing to be one movie, then seamlessly backpedaling into something new. The Crying Game was a ticking-clock espionage thriller that morphed into a doomed romance and an argument about love. In the Bedroom opens as a dysfunctional-family meditation, drifts into Strindbergian despair, and finally emerges as a last-exit, drowning-in-the-well nightmare.

Bedroom's key character is a bright, sensitive youth, Frank Fowler (Nick Stahl, Bully), standing at a personal crossroad: Will he or will he not follow the predetermined ivy-league path, pursuing a degree in architecture?

That's a choice, and one he's passionate about. But he's also falling in love with his neighbor, white-trash Natalie (Marisa Tomei, less abrasive than in My Cousin Vinny), 10 years his senior and the mother of two. He has a long, quiet summer to think it over. Field downplays the melodrama by avoiding music, contemplatively listening instead to the northern wind rustling trees and grass.

Frank's progressive parents, Matt (Wilkinson) and Ruth (Spacek), are inclined to let him go his own way, but on the verge of his life-changing decision their true character emerges.

Matt wants his boy to decide for himself, and isn't displeased to have pretty young Natalie around. Ruth, passive-aggressive under a forced smile, has seen Natalie's kind come and go; she doesn't want her son to make decisions he'll ultimately regret.

But Natalie is still married to a temperamental local yokel (William Mapother), a smiling trucker filled with false promises to change his Ike Turner ways. The guy isn't too happy about Frank sniffing around his woman, and their confrontations send rifts through the Fowler family. "Tell me you hit him," laughs Matt, while cleaning a fistfight scrape on Frank's brow. The husband-in-waiting is an issue, but the bigger one is Matt reconnecting with his beloved son, nicely paired against Ruth's failed attempts to make grating motherly suggestions. Anyone who has seen the preview knows what comes next, which blows this three-way dynamic into pieces and leaves a gaping hole in Bedroom's narrative.

The brunt of the story rests on the shoulders of Matt and Ruth, dealing with their own sense of (the child's) absence. Dealt a heavy blow by an unexpected event that makes Frank's summer considerations moot, Field transforms Bedroom into the cross-examination of a happy marriage.

Like Eyes Wide Shut (which Field acted in), Bedroom presents a relationship under pressure, fading in and out of household moments that become representative of something larger. The way fake-smiling Spacek sets down a glass of water on a tabletop; Wilkinson's cheery demeanor when facing his friends (contradicted by his tentative miscommunications at home); evenings shared zoning out by the television, and late-night insomnia.

It builds to a long, catastrophic (or cathartic) air-cleaning argument between Wilkinson and Spacek, as much about understated acting as it is about character-driven desperation to break through shells.

Spacek smashes a plate; this also makes it into the trailer, but Bedroom rarely hits such histrionic notes. We could have done without music teacher Spacek's heart-tugging high-school chorus performing a wounded aria. She keeps herself coiled but pleasant, the very portrait of unbreakable Gloria Steinem resolve. Spacek's brilliant, but the movie doesn't belong to her. She makes an impact in a handful of deftly written, minimalist scenes -- the weight of each moment rests not on dialogue, but within wary behavior.

It's Tom Wilkinson's show. Appearing in almost every scene, this British thespian not only nails the American accent but also the small-town resolve of a practical family man. Unassuming, open-minded, dedicated without being surefooted, it's an uncommonly deep role for an actor formerly doomed to playing cut-rate baddies in Rush Hour and bureaucratic fools in Shakespeare in Love and The Full Monty. He works with a full and loaded emotional palette here, the man prodded into a fight, who'd prefer to sit in his La-Z-Boy lounge chair.

In a lengthy scene opposite Marisa Tomei, Wilkinson has maybe five lines of dialogue but 15 shades of ambivalence in his eyes and wavering stance. Spacek's moral complexity is actually more masculine than Wilkinson's, opting for a well-timed slap in someone's face that cuts short what surely would have been an Oscar speech. Instead of facing up to conflict, Spacek blows it apart. So does Wilkinson, though through fascinating subterfuge.

The keyword is restraint. But Field, relatively inexperienced, makes a few poorly timed gaffes. When Wilkinson's lawyer jangles change in his pocket, Field opts for a series of surrealistic close-ups and a preternaturally loud crashing of coins. It's silly, dwelling on insignificant minutiae as mini-crescendos.

There's an occasional reliance on scenes that possess rulebook drama that could squeeze right next to Death of a Salesman in acting workshops, with all-too-clearly designated subtexts. Field can't shake those flaws, but he moves beyond them. There's an assurance in his slow pacing and a fatalistic vigor to his finale, unfairly given away in more than one lazy review. Is nothing sacred?

Bedroom is unusually cinematic for the handiwork of an actor-director, which makes Field heir apparent to Keith Gordon (Mother Night; Waking the Dead). Gordon learned his craft under the likes of John Carpenter and Brian De Palma, citing Kubrick as a major influence. Field had firsthand experience under mastermind Kubrick throughout Eyes Wide Shut, spending much of his off-camera time (when he wasn't portraying piano player Nick Nightingale) hovering behind his idol, studying technique.

That shows in Bedroom, particularly the clinical depiction of arguments -- Field is one of the few actor-directors who have thankfully eschewed copying the raw, handheld naturalism of John Cassavetes. Field wisely avoids tracking shots, too. He's more intent on lingering on empty spaces, silences, and spatial relationships. The kitchen becomes a psychic combat-zone, with Spacek at one end bitterly unpacking groceries -- on the other, hapless hanger-on Wilkinson, hands impotently hanging at his sides.

Sundance has become a playground for ineffectual Gen-X'ers, digital posturing, pop irony, and smarmy postmodernism. How refreshing to see a young director with respect for the cinematic form, not straining to be hip but struggling to remain emotionally true. Call it Scenes From a Marriage. Better still, call it a startling debut. In the Bedroom may not be the landmark film some will stupidly, inevitably label it (and it may be too frail to withstand the subsequent backlash), but it stands out as a sharply crafted family ode of bracing candor. Cue the funeral march.

Review published 12.17.2001.

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