In the Bedroom
November 21, 2022
2 Hrs., 11 Mins.
ctor turned director Todd Field’s first effort as a filmmaker, In the Bedroom (2001), is one of the best movies about grief I’ve seen; it captures with unnerving clarity its capricious waves of anger and emptiness and sadness in a way that feels both thoughtfully precise and practically improvised. (That Field underlines the visual beauty of the film’s sunny setting amid extreme emotional darkness also speaks
ingeniously to one of grief’s many cruelties: a now more-acute-than-ever awareness that life around you indifferently moves forward, sometimes feeling like it was almost mocking you with its peripheral joys.)
When In the Bedroom begins, you don’t expect things to go as south as they will. It ingratiates itself, mid-summer, in the Fowler family home. In their small, picturesque fishing town of Camden, Maine, long-married Matt and Ruth (Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek) are longtime guests on the city’s social ladder’s highest rungs. Matt is a respected doctor, and Ruth has been a high-school music teacher for decades. Their only child, Frank (Nick Stahl), is home for break and due to start graduate school in the fall (he’s studying architecture). He’s making a little extra money with a lobster-fishing job.
This family, for the most part, has always had a good, loving relationship by most standards. But it’s being challenged lately, mostly because Frank has started dating a much-older recent divorcée, Natalie (an excellent Marisa Tomei), with a couple of kids who decidedly is farther downward socially than the family with whom she’s now crossing paths. Frank says he sees her like any girl his age, and that their relationship is mostly a fling — a characterization that feels progressively untrue the more time he and Natalie spend together. Matt eggs it on, not-so-subtly jazzed to see his son living out what, to his eye, is a fantasy. Ruth, though, worries, not just because of Frank’s lacking emotional maturity and the class anxieties she won’t confess to but also because Natalie’s ex-husband, Richard (William Mapother), has an explosive temper. He picks fights with her whenever the opportunity arises; on one occasion, he leaves Frank black and blue in an outburst.
That unwieldy anger will result in something terrible. I won’t say exactly what here to preserve some of its shock. But suffice it to say that Field expertly conveys the emotional storms attendant to mourning as he gets at how shared grief has a way of rubbing the preexisting sore spots between those linked by it raw. In the Bedroom’s closest antecedent is probably Robert Redford’s Ordinary People (1980), if slightly more circumspect about how much it divulges of its characters’ lives pre-tragedy. In one of In the Bedroom’s finest, best-realized scenes, Matt and Ruth, unable to keep their emotions clamped down anymore, have a row over their different — and, damagingly, uncommunicative — experiences of grief in addition to laying bare their harbored resentments of one another. While genuinely apologized for later, their complaints are littered with unignorable kernels of truth that have, for years, been buried beneath routine-smoothed goodness to each other. Wilkinson and Spacek perform this centerpiece with a staggering emotional truth that could very well have become acting-competition fodder for less percipient actors.
In the Bedroom is an expansion on Andre Dubus’ 1979 short story Killings,
which the film more directly adapts when it gets to its taut final stretch. (During it, Matt creates his own kind of justice when it doesn’t seem like it will be achievable lawfully.) It’s a gut punch — a testament to the pitless crevasse grief creates, and also a heralding in of one of the most telling details about Matt and Ruth’s relationship. Field has made only three movies as a director over the last 20-plus years; with only his small body of work he’s proven himself dependable as a filmmaker who need not rely on cliché when the unsaid and the suggested can be just as, if not more, powerful and revealing than any easy dramatic fallback. A