We gave it an A
The uncoagulated anguish of parents mourning the death of a child has rarely been more powerfully depicted than in the collected vignettes of grief, rage, and retribution that make up the riveting domestic drama In the Bedroom. Take just one scene, where Maine high school choral teacher Ruth Fowler (Sissy Spacek), shuttling between the insomnia and torpor of depression, stares with blind eyes at a TV screen, deaf to the comedic prattle on a late-night talk show that, under the circumstances, sounds like the saddest, stupidest chat on earth.
The Fowlers’ only child, Frank (Nick Stahl), is dead—he won’t be going to architecture graduate school that fall—because he got caught between Natalie (Marisa Tomei), the local single mother he loved, and the woman’s jealous estranged husband (William Mapother). Neither forgiveness nor revenge feels like an option yet for Ruth, so she sits there, embodied by Spacek with the kind of authority and well-worn grace for which Oscar nominations are made. And when Ruth’s physician husband, Matt (Tom Wilkinson), walks in, he can find no words to reach the wife who remains so isolated in her punishing misery. Wilkinson underplays as admirably as Spacek does. The pair communicate middle-aged personality calcification with an authenticity only middle-aged actors can know, and the married characters sit there, uncomfortable in their comfortable home, drifting from one another. Matt glances at his wife, who is joylessly smoking. She doesn’t glance back. The moment breaks our hearts.
In the Bedroom is full of such meaningful details—the chasm between a husband and wife not touching in their familiar bed, the weird normalcy of mowing a lawn when one’s son is buried under other grass; it’s also enhanced by a surprisingly earthy performance from Tomei and a satisfying embodiment of spoiled and damaged goods by Mapother (a cousin of Tom Cruise). Filmmaker Todd Field, previously best known as an actor (Eyes Wide Shut), builds his movie with such confident vision that it’s hard to believe this is his feature directorial debut. (A Maine man himself, he was also a producer and cowriter of the mature, restrained script with Rob Festinger.)
The plot is based on the short story ”Killings,” a characteristic study of personal ties and breaking points by the late New England-steeped fiction stylist Andre Dubus. But where the story sets its course from the first sentence, Field takes his time, more interested in letting fleeting exchanges between characters linger without tipping his directorial hand as to where those whims will lead.
A literalist could complain that as a result, the dramatic payoff feels unwarranted, maybe even unbelievable. A literalist would, however, be missing the big, breathtaking picture of unpredictable human action. This is a landscape Field understands and appreciates with the embrace of a real artist. A