WARNING: Plot spoilers ahead, all of which have been revealed in various other reviews of the film.
In the Bedroom
Sissy Spacek, Tom Wilkinson, Marisa Tomei, Nick Stahl, William Mapother
US theatrical: 23 Nov 2001 (Limited release)
Pain, rage, and vengeance. These emotions are enormously difficult to render as palatable fiction, despite the many explosive and popular versions you’ve seen—in Eastwood, Stallone, Seagal, and Schwarzenegger movies, where heroes beat down, gun down, or flat-out nuke villains who have intruded on some sacred sphere, usually the domestic transformed into the national, or vice versa. Typically, such fantasies begin with a threat to or decimation of a sense of security, which must then be restored no matter the cost. Never mind that it’s the belief in order and safety itself that is the fantasy—as in, “Carry on with your lives, but be alert.” It’s enough that you can believe it for a film’s running time.
Encouraging belief is, of course, what the movies do best. Hence the current rush to release big-actionated war movies like John Moore’s Behind Enemy Lines and Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, films in which U.S. troops surmount incredible odds and come back more or less triumphant, even, most amazingly, in Scott’s film, which is about a decidedly not-triumphant moment in U.S. military history, the botched 1993 raid in Mogadishu. But as “popular” as pain, rage, and vengeance seem at the moment, they remain knotty experiences, not only as emotions to suffer (or enjoy, I suppose, if you’re Dirty Harry), but also as moral quandaries. Sadly, even when a war movie notes such complexities—as Black Hawk Down surely does—more often than not, it lets viewers off moral hooks. Yes, the combat situation sucks, the troops don’t know exactly why they’re fighting or the big picture, but they mean to do the right thing. Vengeance is an understandable and even thrilling response in these cinematic situations—Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket is an enduringly notable exception.
If belief—a sense of security and order—is what’s at stake, there may be other angles to consider. Such alternatives become acutely visible in the assured first feature by Todd Field, In the Bedroom. Based on Andre Dubus’ short story, “Killings,” about the emotional and moral aftermath of murder in a small town, the movie does not back down from the pain or rage it sets up. Disallowing easy rah-rahs and restoration, it doesn’t let you think that justice might be recognizable, much less done. Horrible things happen for no clear reason, and efforts to restore what used to be normalcy only make the breakdown loom larger.
In the Bedroom begins in mid-storybook romance moment, all pretty surface and optimism: two young lovers, Natalie Strout (Marisa Tomei) and Frank Fowler (Nick Stahl), run gracefully across a sun-dappled field; nearby is a lighthouse, as they live on the Maine coast in a small lobstering town; the water laps. Natalie is a divorced mother of two adorable boys; Frank is an aspiring architect, working on a lobster boat before heading off to grad school in the fall. Frank is obviously fond of Natalie and her children, and soon finds himself in situations where he has to protect her against her ex, Richard (William Mapother), a former high school athlete and son of a local factory-owner. Desperate to get his wife back—and even more desperate to get his way, as he’s apparently used to getting—Richard is increasingly violent.
But the movie isn’t so much about the couple and the disaster that befalls them, as it is about Frank’s parents. His mother Ruth (Sissy Spacek) is especially skeptical of his relationship with Natalie, even before the Richard factor becomes clear. Ruth worries that Natalie is older than Frank and a single mother, but worse, that she’s a townie and a distraction from his studies and eventual career. The issue for Ruth is class—she believes Natalie is “beneath” her son, or at least what Ruth has in mind for him.
At the same time, Frank’s dad, Matt (Tom Wilkinson), is vaguely titillated by Natalie’s working-class vivaciousness. Later in the film, Ruth accuses him of being sexually interested in Natalie, but Matt, a doctor, is clearly invested in all things working class—his son’s work on the lobstering boat, his own friendships and card games with local fisherman—as if to establish his difference from Ruth. Her aspirations and snobbery trouble him, but Matt can’t articulate his discomfort.
As Frank and Natalie’s relationship apparently deepens (he’s spending more time with her, comes home with a black eye after a fight with Richard, drags Matt and Ruth to one of the boys’ Little League game), it is increasingly Ruth, anxious to have Frank get his degree and specifically not work on a boat, who seeks a confrontation, though she tends to handle it by telling Matt he “has to talk with him.” And when Matt does show up on the dock to “spend some time” with Frank one afternoon, the latter assumes Ruth has put him up to it. But their decision to spend the rest of the day finishing Frank’s work together suggests a small moment of conspiracy to thwart her—they’ll do what they want, darn it, especially if it means they’ll come home smelling of fish and seawater.
As these interactions suggest, there’s not much communication in the Fowler house. Instead, they talk past or around one another. They spend their time in separate rooms, avoid touchy subjects or push one another’s buttons with a gesture or a glance, maybe snipe a little, then move on, without outburst, recognition, or resolution. This routine is no doubt familiar: many households function in this way, as members get busy or invested elsewhere, taking for granted the interactions that have taken hardened shape over years. Frank spends his days on the boat, Matt plays cards, and Ruth teaches a high school girls’ chorus (their diversions are not only conventional, but also predictably gendered). Such activities allow the Fowlers to avoid contact, but not maliciously or even, perhaps, self-consciously. Rather, they’re used to not sorting it all out. Like most people, they’re used to getting by.
Tellingly organized, detailed and intimate while at the same time maintaining an acute distance from its subjects, In the Bedroom fascinates in its contradictions. Though you see Ruth or Matt engage in diurnal activities close-up, the images are so brief that it’s on you to fill in—significances, possibilities, what’s next. It’s this trust in viewers, this stillness, that makes In the Bedroom‘s violent turn so jolting (despite a gradually developing sense of menace, in large part a function of the film’s patient stillness). As you may have already guessed, Richard murders Frank.
Then, the film focuses on Matt and Ruth, their inability to cope, their pain and rage, and their growing thirst for what they think is vengeance. As it becomes clear that Richard will serve minimal time, Ruth and Matt feel increasingly battered by the judicial system—it’s like they’re living out a story by Dominic Dunne. Soon, they can barely look at one another, much less speak. The camera shows Ruth watching television and smoking cigarettes late at night, Matt mowing the lawn while she gazes at him from the window, Matt weeps, alone, in Frank’s room. Eventually, the couple’s longstanding and long-repressed resentment of one another comes rushing to the surface, in an argument that actually carries more sheer energy and pain than the shooting itself (which takes place off screen). She accuses him of “causing” the murder by encouraging Frank to pursue a “piece of ass”; he calls her “controlling,” “unforgiving,” and “bitter.”
The blow-out feels huge, but it leads to a collusion of even greater desperation, an effort to make right what’s gone so wrong. This last part of the film clarifies what the first part has been about—the ways that morality and class are associated, and crucially, the ways that this association is obscured, denied and ignored. Such ignorance, of course, is allowed by privilege. You can only judge when you feel you have distance and when you feel righteous. You come up ion a culture that encourages vengeance, a belief that it will reorder a chaotic universe and restore stillness. The extraordinary, quiet insight of In the Bedroom is that such belief is not only delusional, but also harmful. Vengeance only makes more victims.