Tragic movies that bore into their characters' raw emotions are all too often just melodramatic showpieces in which actors histrionically wrestle with their feelings in overwrought, look-at-me-cry performances. Think of any disease-of-the-week or ensemble-of-women flick in which somebody dies, and you'll know what I mean.
If "In the Bedroom" had been ground through the Hollywood machinery and offered to big name stars, it might have been one of those movies. But in the low-budget hands of actor-turned-director Todd Field (the piano player in "Eyes Wide Shut") it's a powerfully understated exposed nerve of a film, about the emotional wreckage of losing a child, told through the body language of broken hearts and depleted souls.
Beginning as a love story, the film stars Marisa Tomei as Natalie Strout, a young, small town mother preserving through an ugly divorce with the support of her even younger boyfriend, Frank Fowler (Nick Stahl), a promising architecture student ready to forgo an Ivy League scholarship to stay with her.
But just as their tentative devotion begins to truly blossom, the film takes a shocking turn: Frank is murdered by Natalie's wrathfully possessive soon-to-be ex-husband Richard (a chillingly volatile William Mapother). The focus then turns to Frank's devastated parents, played with such unaffected layers of blindsided veracity by Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson that it's impossible to take your eyes off them for the rest of the picture.
A long-stable and happy couple, their relationship is sucked dry of its joy and tranquillity with the loss of their son. Their emotions have been cut off at the knees. Insomnia plagues them both. Ruth (Spacek) retreats into her shuttered home and into the black hole in her heart, hardly speaking to her husband. Matt (Wilkinson) tries to go about his daily life, but reminders of his son are everywhere (a still-indented pillow in his bedroom, 2x4s nailed to a tree trunk as a ladder to a boyhood perch), and without the mutual support he shared with his wife, he's soon driven to drink.
When Richard -- who is the black sheep of a locally powerful family that owns the town's economy-driving fish cannery -- pleads self-defense and makes bail, it's a twist of the knife to the Fowlers. The fact that their son's unremorseful killer may get away with a light sentence is compounded tenfold by actually seeing him on the street. It's too much to take, and the downward spiral of impulsive, redirected rage and psychological breakdowns that follows threatens to tear them apart.
Todd Field's hands-off direction allows Wilkinson (a brilliant English chameleon who is best in emotional dramas but is best known for broad comedy like "The Full Monty") and Spacek to delve deeply into their characters' shattered spirits and find the kind of quiet pain that manifests itself not in outbursts and tears, but in listless steps, dead stares and empty breaths. As a result, their performances are twin masterpieces of abstruse anguish.
"In the Bedroom" is potently effective vicarious grief, but Field is sensitive enough allow a reprieve of sorts in the film's last act. It's the kind of gesture a Hollywood director might have tacked on to a heartbreaking movie to acquiesce to test audiences. But Field is intelligent enough to make his ending, in its own way, almost as surprising, suspenseful and troubling as the murder itself.
Run time: 130 mins
In Theaters: Friday 8th February 2002
Box Office USA: $35.7M
Distributed by: Miramax Films
Production compaines: Miramax Films, GreeneStreet/SKE Films
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 93%
Fresh: 129 Rotten: 9
IMDB: 7.5 / 10
Director: Todd Field
Starring: Tom Wilkinson as Matt Fowler, Sissy Spacek as Ruth Fowler, Nick Stahl as Frank Fowler, Marisa Tomei as Natalie Strout, William Mapother as Richard Strout, William Wise as Willis Grinnel, Karen Allen as Marla Keyes, Celia Weston as Katie Grinnel, Frank T. Wells as Henry, W. Clapham Murray as Carl, Justin Ashforth as Tim
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