starring Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek, Nick Stahl, Marisa Tomei
screenplay by Robert Festinger & Todd Field, based on a short story by Andre Dubus
directed by Todd Field
by Walter Chaw Based on the short story "Killings" by the late Andre Dubus, arguably the finest American short-story writer of the past fifty years, Todd Field's In the Bedroom is an emotionally brutal and laudably ambiguous film that does justice to the sober restraint and taint of truth that informs the best of Dubus's work. It's like an Atom Egoyan or Sean Penn film in its austere chronicling of families tossed to entropy's capricious tide, though a more complete work those filmmakers have yet to achieve. What Field captures, in fact, is a whiff of Terrence Malick's genius--not only in he and cinematographer Antonio Calvache's spacious plateaus, but also in the thematic preoccupation with nature's rhythms and how they imbue the patterns of human behaviour. That said, In the Bedroom largely avoids Malick's philosophical metaphors, focusing on the far less ephemeral poetics of Dubus's preoccupation with the minute interpersonal dynamics--the subterranean movements and precarious psychic negotiation--of a marriage.
A bereaved mother comments at one point in In the Bedroom about her process of anger and grief: "It's like the moments between waves crashing--or pauses in music. There's no noise, but it's deafening." Likewise deafening in its solemn quietness, the film is home to a quartet of superior, restrained performances, a screenplay that is as intelligent as it is observant, and direction that shows as much discretion as is appropriate to a chronicle of cataclysms and crucibles. The film isn't about its plotting so much as it is about love--what it means to the young, what it means to a parent, and what it means to those who have become so familiar with their mates over a lifetime's struggle that the love becomes mysterious from inattention.
Matt (Tom Wilkinson) and Ruth (Sissy Spacek) have high hopes for their Ivy League-bound son Frank (Nick Stahl), who might have other ideas for his future: he's interested in the crabbing and fishing industry that fuels their small New England community and has fallen in love with an older woman, Natalie (Marisa Tomei). The title of the film is taken from the wisdom that too many male lobsters "in the bedroom" of a trap inevitably results in the mutilation of one or more of these males. In truth, little more should be spoken of In the Bedroom's surprising narrative, lest its synopsis overwhelm an appreciation of the unqualified craft that infuses this production's every aspect.
In the Bedroom is marked by two poems, recited in portions by one of Matt's old poker buddies to irritate reticent companions into bidding or folding. The first is from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence, the last a stanza from Henry Wordsworth Longfellow's beautiful My Lost Youth. Blake's poem, which received its most notable cinematic explication in Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man, is interested in drawing a kind of primary testament from nature:
The poison of the snake and newt
Is the sweat of Envy's foot.
The poison of the honeybee
Is the artist's jealousy.
This at once predicts In the Bedroom's belief that humans are defined by a natural morality (as opposed to a dogmatic one), and that the rules and laws of man are consistently and sensibly subverted by the instinctual behaviours stemming from the range of love-inspired urges: jealousy and rage on the one side, protectiveness and tenderness on the other. The coda of Auguries of Innocence lends the use of this poem in the film an important nuance:
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.
There's a kind of comfort that Blake takes in the unpredictability of destiny and the importance of the individual to accept the infernal responsibility of becoming an actor in his own drama. It is an analysis of the poem that haunts at the end of the film when the ferociously decent Matt performs a cheerless act out of obligation to his love. Of course, on a more surface level, the use of Blake's Auguries of Innocence points to Frank's loss of moral simplicity in his outspoken love for Natalie. The Longfellow poem presents a decidedly post-Romanticist view of a similar loss of innocence couched in a less certain, more melancholy and ineffable light:
There are things of which I may not speak;
There are dreams that cannot die;
There are thoughts that make the strong heart weak,
And bring a pallor into the cheek,
And a mist before the eye.
And the words of that fatal song
Come over me like a chill:
"A boy's will is the wind's will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts."
One of Longfellow's gloomiest works, The Lost Youth comes at a pivotal moment in In the Bedroom, functioning as a bittersweet summary of Matt's emotional and literal journey while the first lines of the next stanza of the poem provide a clear explanation of the final crane shots of the idyllic Maine town in which the film takes place:
Strange to me now are the forms I meet
When I visit the dear old town;
Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek are astonishing in their transparency. Marisa Tomei finally earns the Oscar she won ten years ago for a forgettable slapstick turn in a forgettable slapstick film, and young Nick Stahl, after this and his contribution to Larry Clark's Bully, shows more promise than any of his acting peers. Every performance is above reproach and utterly convincing--there has not been a better ensemble piece in years. Eerie, haunted traditional Balkan river hymns comprise the soundtrack, songs of mourning from a war-torn nation that, when coupled with crisp shots of a wintry New England landscape, serve the understated torment of the film's central drama and its cast's painful evolution with an elegance that renders one speechless and broken. But most valuably, In the Bedroom understands the multiplicity of themes inherent in the poems that it quotes, in much the same way that Field and Robert Festinger's screenplay understands the ardent ethics that propel Andre Dubus's source material.
A work of art that is by turns delicate and fragile, ferocious and stentorian, In the Bedroom is the possibility of filmmaking fully realized: meaningful time spent with people we slowly come to know and respect who neither betray their own nature nor undervalue our investment in same. Andre Dubus would have been proud; Todd Field and his crew and his remarkable cast should be proud. Natalie says very early on, as she's lying in a wind-swept field with her young lover, "I love it here, I can feel my life." I love In the Bedroom in the same way--I can feel my life, and I can't wait to see it again. Originally published: December 26, 2001.