REVIEW: "In the Bedroom"; Field's Shattering Debut
Patrick Z. McGavin
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Patrick Z. McGavin reviewed Todd Field’s current release, “In the Bedroom” during its 2001 Sundance Film Festival premiere].
As this festival makes explicit, filmmaking is a very elusive, ephemeral profession; there is something fiercely unaccountable about a medium that requires both technical skill and emotional intuition, talent and expression. The alchemy for success is so particular and intricate, there is little margin for error.
The resourceful, capable actor Todd Field, whose best known roles are probably in Victor Nunez‘ “Ruby in Paradise” and Stanley Kubrick‘s “Eyes Wide Shut,” has fashioned an invigorating and at times emotionally shattering debut feature. “In the Bedroom,” his dramatic competition work, is easily among the most accomplished and interesting of this year’s selections. Field clearly has an affinity for actors but he also brings a perceptive balance and fluid grasp of the material.
Field and the writer Rob Festinger have adapted a story by Andre Dubus which examines with feeling, mood and exquisite restraint the devastating consequence of memory and loss, regret and failure. Apart from a highly problematic final half hour, “In the Bedroom” marks an auspicious debut. Field has made some highly regarded shorts, though there is little to prepare one for the movie’s Ibsen-like qualities, the punctuated silences and frozen spaces involving people negotiating the emotional void.
The film opens with a moment of physical rapture and closes on a note of uncertainty and ambiguity. In between these expansive spaces, Field infuses the passages with a firm, clean, largely unobtrusive hand. The movie has a strong, organic texture — the recurring use of the radio rebroadcasts of Boston Red Sox games, for example, contribute to the movie’s emotional and physical contours.
Centered on the lives of an upper-class New England family, “In the Bedroom” has a superb feel for the emotional and personal solidity of work and professionalism — the father, Matt (Tom Wilkinson) is a doctor, and mother Ruth (Sissy Spacek) is a teacher who works with a special choral group. Their son Frank (Nick Stahl) is a promising Ivy League college student with a passion and skill for architecture and drawing. The movie unfolds over the sun-parched, physically beautiful splendor of middle summer. Expanding on the movie’s concern for skill and passion, Frank and his father are passionate about the sea: Frank spends the summer as a lobster fisherman working on his grandfather’s boat. Matt drifts away on his lunch hour to the docks, perhaps reenacting his youth or summoning up a freedom, while Frank is deeply conflicted over college and its negative impact on his deepening relationship with Natalie (Marisa Tomei), a young mother of two boys separated from her husband, Richard (William Mapother).
The first third of the movie is observant, slow, insinuating, moving around the theme of family dynamics, friendship and community. There’s a wonderful poker scene where one of the participants, frustrated by Matt’s delaying tactics, quotes an extended passage from William Blake.
The movie is a long first feature — 130 minutes — and it is bound to frustrate the impatient, but Field has a nice sense of flow and imagery. Working with a very good cinematographer Antonio Calvache, Field reveals a superb sense of symmetry and proportion. During these scenes, the widescreen framing is elegant, subtle and quietly still.
The film’s middle sections are bound by unease and dread, the mounting feeling that Frank’s deeper commitment to Natalie has horrendous consequences in the form of her increasingly vengeful and pathological husband. This violent plot shift is stunning, viscerally and physically. Field does not lose control of the material, and the most emotionally piercing moment occurs in its aftermath when Matt walks alone into the school auditorium where Ruth is working, his frame frozen in the doorway.
Structurally, the first third opens up to unveil its primary and secondary figures. During the second, it is inward and contracted, the feeling of inconsolable grief and loss disrupts the interior lives of the surviving couple. Inevitably estranged from their community and friends, Matt and Ruth attempt to cope with their loss. The projection of the body is one of the primary tools the actor employs, and the physical and emotional expression of Wilkinson and Spacek and their markedly different bodies is something to watch. With his big, large features, Wilkinson plays off the smaller, refined characteristics of Spacek. Emotionally, the temperament feels desperately right, with anger and defeat playing off jealousy and hate.
In tone and technique, “In the Bedroom” is virtually perfect for roughly 100 minutes, but the final act is a too easily constructed resolution to the painstaking emotional complications. It is understandable, yes, but it deprives the work of the necessary summation of its opening two parts. The synthesis of the build-up and conflict lacks the rigor, organizing shape and authenticity necessary to sustain the varied parts. But Field recovers in the final moments, drawing on the dead space and ambiguous setting to achieve a quietly devastating final image.
If “In the Bedroom” does not quite achieve deeper levels of insight or a stronger emotional gratification, it succeeds admirably as evidence of talent and hope, ambition and accomplishment. Thankfully, Todd Field is up to the imposing challenges he sets for himself.