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In the Bedroom (Todd Field) 2001

Todd Fieldís In the Bedroom is indisputably the arrival of a new directorial talent. His work here is really somewhat astonishing, since he manages to create a rare film that manages to note the powerful effect of quietness. It usually takes a remarkable level of assuredness and maturity to make such a film work, but Fields manages to do so on his first time at bat. That being said, I must admit that In the Bedroom is a film that I found myself admiring more than enjoying. It has a wonderful ensemble, a great sense of pacing, and its few shocking moments genuinely manage to shock. Somewhat unfortunately for me, I found that its main characters were both quite unlikable. Although the film does a remarkable job of making us understand how its educated, outwardly reasonable leads can make the decisions that they do, they certainly donít feel like healthy decisions. As a result, much of the film left me feeling quite uncomfortable. 

Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson play Ruth and Matt Fowler, a middle aged couple that has a singular son (Nick Stahl), who they want to send to grad school. Trouble arises when he falls in love with Natalie Strout (Marisa Tomei), an older woman who is still in the midst of getting a divorce from her potentially violent husband (William Mapother). The film spends its first forty minutes setting up their lives as relatively idyllic and carefree, then shatters that world. Until this point, I was convinced I was watching a masterpiece, but things get a bit shakier and messier as the film goes on. The audience is forced to sympathize with people who are inherently sympathetic, but the decisions that they make are reprehensible. As the film wobbles on, their motivations become less and less likable, until they are exposed as somewhat petty and almost evil. The film might appear to outwardly endorse the lead charactersí actions, but upon closer examination, it clearly doesnít. Ruth and Matt Fowlerís characters are completely consumed by their rage, but that rage is so unchecked that it blocks out their morality. They are able to coldly rationalize their principles away. Ruth is especially manipulative, and the ending scene suggests her startling admission of her judgmental nature to her husband was another manipulation, and that what he does in the film probably would not have happened without her.

The problem is that in order to sell this complex relationship between the two, they are somewhat reduced as characters. Until the filmís climatic fight, Matt and Ruth never talk about their problem. Before that scene, Matt simply cannot look at it as indicative of any larger problem he and Ruth might have, and she simply cannot look at it as anything other than a larger problem. Neither one of them seems to grasp the full picture, and the suggestion that Ruthís trauma is caused only by rage and Mattís is caused by only love seems to oversimplify things. Marisa Tomeiís performance comes off as the most dynamic in the film, since her character gets a chance to feel both emotions as well as a profound sense of guilt. Itís unfortunate that the film literally smacks her off to the sidelines as it does.

I cannot express how much I admired the filmís ability to present so many of these emotions without explicitly stating them. So much of the filmís meaning is tied up in visual terms. Many of the frustrations in the film arenít voiced, but are displayed with a sidelong glance. The film comes off as a far more intellectual than emotional experience, since the audience isnít really asked to cry with the characters, but instead examine how they work. There are shots throughout the film that look at the mechanics of the townís fish cannery or sailboats, and that sort of attention to robotic detail is a bit of a disservice when Field applies it to the filmís characters. Their intelligence seems to be their justification for what they do. Since they feel they can carry out their evil deed with enough precision that they wonít get caught, they are able to justify going through with it. We watch their plotting come to fruition with excruciating detail, as if they are proud of their deviousness. While the film seems rather horrified by their actions, it seems thoroughly convinced that those actions have a traceable logic behind them, and Iím not sure that I agree that real emotions are so easily pigeonholed. Nonetheless, In the Bedroom is an exceptional film, since its inconsistencies take place on a realm of character that few films even aspire to.

***1/2

11/25/01

Jeremy Heilman