by John Smith
Sissy Spacek killed her mother in Carrie, shot her husband in Crimes Of The Heart, and killed herself in Night Mother. Elsewhere, she saved the family farm from floods and bank managers in The River, warbled her way to country-western glory in Coal Miner’s Daughter, and stood behind her eccentric father in The Straight Story. In her movies, she’s either off her rocker, or sitting on it knitting.In The Bedroom gives her the chance to bring these two extremes together, and she rises to the occasion, giving a marvellously balanced performance in this searing film about the deadly undercurrents of happiness.
Spacek plays Ruth Fowler, a disciplined small town high school music teacher, who is married to the respected local doctor, Matt (Tom Wilkinson). Ruth and Matt have one child, the prodigious Frank (Nick Stahl) who is about to fly the nest and begin an architecture scholarship at a prestigious university. That is, if he can disentangle himself from an immature, sticky fling with Natalie (Marisa Tomei), the lovable town bike who’s on the run from Richard (William Mapother), the unhinged father of her three kids.
Ruth wants Frank to dump Natalie and concentrate on his studies. She has high hopes for her son, and can’t see a place in her accomplished family for wrong-side-of-the-tracks Natalie. Matt thinks it’s all a bit of fun, and seems to admire his son’s horny recklessness.
But when Richard arrives back on the scene at a tense family barbecue, a blow-up seems imminent. It comes, and when it does, ends up being far worse than anyone – including the audience – could have predicted.
Once this shattering, rupturing event occurs, In The Bedroom switches – like that – from an American Beauty style family drama into a chilling study of blame, possession, grief, and jealousy along the lines of Breaking The Waves.
The film’s second act unfolds and contorts like a mobius strip. We know the ice is sure to break, but we can’t guess when, and it’s so riveting to watch such complex, alive characters chess-piece each other, that we almost hope it doesn’t. It all becomes increasingly hypnotic, thanks not only to the acting and the writing, but the cunning visual skill of director Todd Field.
Field lets unsettling clues drift into the film like mist across a graveyard. A girl in Ruth’s choir appears with a gruesome blood clot in her right eye, the same part of the face as, well, you’ll find out. And there’s this terrific sense of the occult. At a wake, the reflection of a priest is visible, mid-screen, in a glass door-pane, behind which a main character stands, grieving. The room is full of people, but only the priest’s shadow can be seen, seemingly projected onto the character. The film is never pushed over into supernatural territory, rather, these touches of religion and unavoidable fate give the film an almost operatic richness.
Unspeaking portraits hang on the walls of at least every other scene. Before Natalie encounters Ruth for the first time, she passes by one or two, and stops to examine them. When the camera finally falls on Spacek’s off-white skin and embalmed expression, we’re not sure if she’s a ghost, a painting, or a person.
Spacek’s character is the dramatic spine of the story, but the film ends up belonging to the perfectly cast Tom Wilkinson. A verbal actor like Kevin Spacey would have sent audiences to sleep, packing all of Matt’s dilemnas into a few cigarette-punctuated monologues, and the occasional slow-close of the eyes. One of the flabby strippers in The Full Monty, Wilkinson tackles the meaty role of Matt, a middle aged doctor and husband grappling with the challenge at hand, and the disturbing behaviour of his increasingly distant wife, with thrilling full-body energy. As if discovering the role as he goes along, Wilkinson fumbles and stutters his way to letter perfect wounded fatherhood. Wilkinson shows us how a cuddly old Dad, previously only good at reading the newspaper and fishing, handles a screaming three-headed catastrophe.
The film is structurally perfect. Ruth and Matt’s fractured partnership is counterweighted by the jolly presence of their married best friends, while Frank and Natalie are the perfect anti-couple, hanging around the outskirts showing the lucky in-crowd where they could’ve otherwise ended up. In the middle, single, optimistic Frank, who has yet to complicate his life, is the perfect sacrificial lamb.
Like many of us, the characters of In The Bedroom takes their everyday schemes, gossips and jealousies for granted. We like some people, dislike others, and we manoeuvre and contrive accordingly. But how do we respond when tragedy makes our otherwise benign behaviour seem evil, cold and despicable to all around us?
And are we all invested with wells of murderous hatred, ready to blow if the situation permits?The makers of In The Bedroom prove as adept at posing these questions cinematically, as the talented cast are at providing some sobering answers.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=4844&reviewer=305
originally posted: 03/04/02 14:22:43