In The Bedroom

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

IN THE BEDROOM

5/10

USA 2001
director : Todd Field
script : Field, Rob Festinger (based on short story ‘Killings’ by Andre Dubus)
producers include : Field
cinematography : Antonio Calvache
editing : Frank Reynolds
music : Thomas Newman
lead actors : Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek, Marisa Tomei, Nick Stahl, William Mapother
130-138 minutes

Powerful – but disappointingly manipulative – drama of loss, grief, justice and retribution. Fiftyish physician Dr Matt Fowler (Wilkinson) is a respected member of his community, a scenic lobster-fishing village on the New England coast. His wife Ruth (Spacek) divides her time between training a school choir for a concert of Balkan folk-songs and fretting over her only child, Frank (Stahl), a promising architecture student who’s enjoying an idyllic pre-college summer with older girlfriend Natalie (Tomei). The brittle, slightly snobby Ruth doesn’t approve of the relationship – Natalie is a little too working-class, and she has a young child from her marriage to estranged husband Richard (Mapother), the wayward black sheep of a rich lobster-farming family. While Frank reassures his mother that Natalie is just “a summer thing,” the hot-headed Richard glowers on the sidelines. His jealousy spills over into increasingly violent outbursts, culminating in sudden tragedy and devastating consequences for all concerned …

There’s so much to appreciate in Field’s sombre, carefully crafted debut – he’s an actor himself, so it’s no surprise to see him give so much space to his well-chosen cast. And how they respond: Wilkinson, in particular, emerges from the ensemble to carry the second half of the movie with a subtle, complex performance of tortured dignity. Spacek is, likewise, all pained nuance and simmering emotion, and the pair ensure that Fowlers’ fluctuating relationship is the real substance of the movie. Field gambles with a long, devastating scene in which their numbed grief gives way to ferocious recrimination, and it’s a triumphant success. With cinematographer Calvache, he creates an geographical frame in which the characters move: houses, roads, forests and seascapes, doubly evocative in the nocturnal scenes.

But what is all this care, this craft, this skill actually for? In The Bedroom feels designed – stacked, perhaps – to provoke specific responses in the viewer. Field deals with some extremely serious issues here, but he’s in danger of trivialising them by presenting only one side of the debate,. The tragic incident on which the film pivots isn’t actually shown, and remains ambiguous – but the contrasting way in which the Fowlers and Richard Strout are presented seems crudely rigged to sway our sympathies in one direction: it isn’t Wilkinson or Spacek’s fault, but their tremendous efforts are ultimately undermined by being placed so squarely at the service of Field’s agenda.

Even apparently innocuous lines of dialogue are, on closer inpection, pieces of ammunition: musing over the complex acronyms used to describe motor vehicles, one of the Fowler’s neighbours comments “I guess it’s too much trouble to say what a thing is anymore.” Matt’s café-owner friend, remarking that his business was recently held up by robbers, rues the fact that he wasn’t there himself in order to defend his livelihood with a rifle. Everything, it seems, is going down the plughole, including a “justice” system so full of loopholes that ‘good people’ have to take the law into their own hands. Field doesn’t play down the consequences of such actions – their impact reverberates long after the credits have rolled – but he does fall short of exploring and justifying their origins, with the result that the film, for all its merits, fails to satisfy.

The title doesn’t help matters, either. It’s obviously a reference to the film’s concentration on the Fowlers’ relationship – but there also seems to be another, metaphorical meaning to the seemingly straightforward phrase. Early on, we see a lobster-fishing trip in which we overhear a discussion of lobster pots – and ‘the bedroom’ is the name of one of the loops used to trap the mollusc and keep it in place. So ‘in the bedroom’ refers to a kind of snare – but who is in the trap? Frank? Matt? The audience?


14th November, 2001
(seen Nov-2-01, National Film Theatre – London Film Festival)

by Neil Young
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