Todd Field’s In the Bedroom is a story of grief and the consequences that arise from that grief, but luckily Field and a talented group of actors know the potential problems from that kind of well-worn story and approach the story with sensitivity and realism.
Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson star as Ruth and Matt Fowler. The couple is happy in their lives and happy in their marriage. Their main source of concern involves their son Frank (Nick Stahl) and his new romance with not-yet-divorced mother Natalie (Marisa Tomei). Matt quietly encourages the relationship while Ruth quietly disapproves. Natalie’s children love Frank, but Natalie’s ex Richard (William Mapother) decidedly does not.
Both Ruth and Matt want Frank to go back to school to become an architect and forget about Natalie, while Frank contemplates crab fishing to stay in the area to be closer to Natalie. Eventually, things grow out of control with Richard, leading to a confrontation at Natalie’s house where Frank is shot and killed.
The film truly comes alive and evolves into its true form once Frank dies. Matt puts on a brave face while Ruth shuts down. The differences in grief alienate the two from each other, but it’s not as simple as being shut down or being open. Matt inundates people with small talk about nothing as he is perfectly aware the people around him are on eggshells. Ruth is quiet, but not a zombie. She is placidly numb, but still is able to function.
Ruth’s accidental interaction with an out-on-bail Richard as well as both having very different conversations with Natalie bring things to a boil. All the pent-up anger and years of frustrations and unsaid feelings spew out between the couple as they discuss each other and their son. The scene brings out the worst in their characters, but the absolute best out of Spacek and Wilkinson.
The two lead actors are the reason the film works. At 131 minutes, the film flies due to the pure watchability of both Spacek and Wilkinson, with them both drastically underplaying their parts until the emotional crux of the film allows them to erupt with the passion they’ve been holding in. Spacek exudes her usual warmth, while giving hints of darkness and manipulation. Her move towards apathy following Frank’s death feels right and she steers the character in the correct direction at every turn. Wilkinson does most of his work with his worn eyes and masked words. His big monologue to Spacek during their fight is still underplayed and features some of the more subtle jabs of anger and resentment I’ve seen on film.
Tomei drifts through the narrative, but acts as the lynchpin for the events of the film. Her character is more of a mystery than others and the unspoken and unlearned things about Natalie only enrich the film’s conflict. Tomei still nails the warmth and awareness of her character, knowing how she is viewed by people and especially how she is viewed by Ruth. Stahl balances his youth and exuberance with his the unearned maturity that eventually brings on his fate. Mopather also skirts a fine line of psychotic and even-keeled that grounds his character in reality.
Field’s direction is solid, but does feel like someone who hasn’t directed before. Sometimes, his decisions are bold and drive scenes, but other times he seems unsure of what to do and conflicts the styles. His script (with co-writer Robert Festinger) knows exactly how to behave. There are few grand, preachy line readings and more about what is unsaid and is read between the lines. Even when characters do proclaim their feelings, they stumble on their words and search for the thing to say. It is a very human script.
I would love for Todd Field to have another chance to direct this film with the same actors at the same time, with the benefit of a bit of directorly experience. The maturity as a filmmaker he showed in his subsequent film, Little Children, would have served him well. It doesn’t take anything away from the job he did on this film, as he brought out the best of every actor and elevated a small, subtle film about grief into a Best Picture nominee.
Next week, I catch up on all the other films I missed from 2001, like I Am Sam, Ghost World and Iris. Plus, I re-watch a few others.