A powerfully dramatic story of a New England couple’s slowly evolving reaction to a family tragedy, “In the Bedroom” marks an almost startlingly accomplished directorial debut by actor Todd Field. Beautifully acted by a diverse ensemble, this Good Machine production is carefully crafted and deliberately paced, an approach that will win it accolades from critics and serious-minded viewers but will limit its commercial potential to the specialized circuit. Reception in Europe could be hampered by knee-jerk ideological reactions to the hot-button issues of vigilantism and the American justice system, which surface late in the game.
Known for his performances in such films as Victor Nunez’s “Ruby in Paradise” and “Eyes Wide Shut” as well as being a published photographer, Field exhibits some Nunez influence in the gentle confidence with which he dwells on domestic routines and commonplace occurrences while slowly building a head of narrative steam and tension. Tale is set in Maine, and the film’s images are replete with details of the workaday life of that distinctive state, which is the director’s own.
Opening scene is suffused by the heady atmosphere of Maine’s brief summer, as, like characters in an early Ingmar Bergman film, two young lovers enjoy each other in an untamed patch of long grass being blown by soul-stirring winds. They are the vivacious Natalie Strout (Marisa Tomei) and Frank Fowler (Nick Stahl), a handsome kid a good 10 years younger than his woman.
Over the course of a long afternoon birthday party, much information is casually dispersed. Very happy with her teenage companion, Natalie has two young boys and is separated, but not yet divorced, from Richard (William Mapother), a commonplace lout with silly dyed blond hair and a quick-trigger temper. Frank’s well-to-do father, Matt (Tom Wilkinson), is a genial town doctor and still-randy husband to Ruth (Sissy Spacek), who maintains an immaculate house and leads the school chorus through selections of her obscure specialty, Eastern European folk songs.
Mature for his age and a highly promising designer and potential architect, Frank is spending the summer lobstering before heading to college in the fall, although his parents, especially Ruth, worry that he’s too involved with Natalie. But they don’t really interfere, and Frank is such a terrific kid that there’s little doubt he’ll end up doing the right thing.
The film’s first 40 minutes are wonderful in their evocation of place and the unstressed emotions of mostly solid and admirable characters; it’s exceedingly rare for a young American director to exhibit, and honor, a mature attention span, as well as to put such a well-adjusted family front and center in a drama. So it is shocking and genuinely upsetting when young Frank is savagely murdered in an invasion of Natalie’s home by the seethingly jealous Richard.
Here as elsewhere, Field pointedly refrains from showing the violence onscreen. With a daring, demanding approach, he also protracts the death’s aftermath so that one experiences the mourning period and resulting stasis right along with Matt and Ruth. Gradually, however, husband and wife threaten to come apart at the seams over the differences in their reactions; whereas Matt finds it helpful to get out of the house and report to the office everyday as usual, Ruth retreats into a cocoon of smoking, TV watching and brooding silence until she perversely begins blaming Matt for their son’s death.
They must also patiently cope with a legal process that ends up favoring Richard, who gets out on bail and goes his merry way until such a time as a trial date is set. Frustrating set of circumstances sends the story into unexpected, if paradoxically more conventional, territory, resulting in a climax that satisfies on the plane of ultimate moral justice but may trouble those on the liberal-left side of the eternal crime-and-punishment debate.
As meticulously planned and executed as the film is, there is no question that Frank’s departure from the story leaves a major void — for the viewer as well as for the character’s family. This is the greatest compliment that can be paid to young actor Stahl, who has previously been seen in “The Man Without a Face” and “Disturbing Behavior” and now seems ready to excel in any part Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t want.
In an about-face from his fine turn as the arrogant Gen. Cornwallis in “The Patriot,” Wilkinson gives enormously sympathetic shadings to Matt, who comes off as an ideal father and quite a good husband, Ruth’s later objections notwithstanding; it’s a large, warm-blooded performance. After some years out of the limelight, it’s refreshing to see Spacek again in a significant characterization. Looking great, she is required to hit some predictable notes of suffering and resentment, but she does so with subtlety and an unactressy genuineness. Tomei is winning in what is surely her most naturalistic and unaffected performance.
Script was adapted by Field and Rob Festinger from a story by the late Andre Dubus, and it has the contours of a classically constructed revenge drama that could have served as the basis of everything from a work of Elizabethan drama to a Western or a film noir. In this context, it becomes an intensely emotional family drama drenched by the earth’s elements and outfitted with the myriad details of the stuff of life.
From cinematographer Antonio Calvache’s careful widescreen compositions to Thomas Newman’s enriching score, craft contributions are strong.