In idyllic Mid-Coast Maine, the Fowler family's only son Frank comes home from his freshman year at college for summer vacation. His mother Ruth, the school choir director, is unhappy with Frank dating soon-to-be divorced mother Natalie who is several years his senior, but Frank's father Matt, the town doctor, doesn't see a problem. While Frank considers holding off his future for Natalie, her jilted husband causes them all problems until an unthinkable tragedy shakes the community to its very core. Written by
Watching Todd Field's feature film debut `In the Bedroom,' I could not help but be impressed by the sheer audacity of the film, by the spot-on performances, and by the many twists and turns that no critic should reveal. Yet amidst all the film's obvious strengths, there was still something missing-something to tie it all together, something to endow the film with more than just a fleeting impression.
Ironically perhaps, I was provided this missing bit of information not by the film, but by a male audience member sitting at the end of my aisle, trying to explain the point of the film in less than derogatory terms to his female companion.
`You're missing the whole point of the film,' he said. `It was all about men being controlled by women.'
No doubt he read this interpretation from someone else's review of the film (and what a sweet piece of justice it would be if that critic were a woman). It is quite possible that he was not even aware of the ramifications of what he had said. But this man's legitimacy aside, his statement has not left me since, and the film in turn has had the same luck in escaping me.
We are first introduced to Frank Fowler (Nick Stahl, `Bully') and Natalie Strout (Marisa Tomei, `My Cousin Vinny'), he a young college student with no immediate plans to settle down, she an older divorcee raising two children. They are in love, though for Frank she is little more than a `summer fling.' Meanwhile Natalie's ex-husband, Richard (William Mapother, `Mission: Impossible 2'), is unwilling to let her out of his life, and begins to be physically abusive to Frank. Frank's parents, Matt (Tom Wilkinson, `The Full Monty') and Ruth (Sissy Spacek, `The Straight Story')-both in top form here-show appropriate concern for their only son, and they intervene in this dangerous love triangle with unexpected twists and tragic results.
The film jumps about in tone from a light romantic romp to a seeming political treatise to a creepy, nocturnal thriller. Some have criticized the film for this alleged inconsistency in tone, slow pacing, and a deliberate ending. But these naysayers have overlooked the point.
Frank may not even really love Natalie, so much as he loves being controlled by her and sating his mother by being with her. Richard becomes a threat to everyone because he is unwilling to let Natalie consider him out of her life; he is a slave to her whim. The resulting tension reveals a rift between Frank's parents, and in particular, his father's actions in the end demonstrate a helpless allegiance to his wife and her command.
Field, who up until now has been primarily an actor (he was the piano player in `Eyes Wide Shut'), understands these important points but does not beat the viewer over the head with them. He presents a reality more raw and true than any other piece of film in recent memory. Yet he does so with a restraint that Hollywood seems to have forgotten. Most of the film's violence is overheard or implied, and only explicitly shown when necessary for the audience to completely understand what has happened. This allows for more subtle details, like a bridgekeeper who must run around in circles to alternate traffic between the road and the sea, to emerge as truly haunting, lasting images.
But `In the Bedroom' is not about any of these things. It is, first and foremost, about its characters. It does not fall prey to plot mechanics, nor does it flinch at exploring even the most sympathetic characters' darkest sides. For this and so many other reasons which are best left discussed behind closed doors between loved ones, `In the Bedroom' succeeds at turning the camera on flawed relationships of all forms, and it is one of the best films of the year.
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