“Their bodies are broken, yes,” explains Ted Cole (Jeff Bridges) to his four-year-old daughter, Ruth (Elle Fanning). “Their bodies are under the ground. Tommy and Timmy are alive in our imaginations.” In this bedtime ritual, at once intriguing, sweet, and awful, dad carries his little girl down a hallway in their tasteful, blond-wooded Hamptons home, and they gaze on picture after picture of Ruthie’s suntanned, towheaded brothers, now dead.
As Ted and Ruthie share these odd communions, he’s inclined to offer up detailed, but also strangely abstracted descriptions of the twins, teenagers at the time of their deaths, before Ruthie was conceived. Based on John Irving’s novel, A Widow for One Year, Tod Williams’ The Door in the Floor suggests that Ted’s erratic obsessiveness is a function of his grief (like so many characters in Irving novels, he lost his children and his apparent innocence in a gruesome car accident), as well as his “artistic” temperament.
Plotwise, this means he’s sublimating his trauma in his work; he’s a children’s book writer and illustrator (one of his books takes this film’s title, The Door in the Floor) or, as he puts it, repeatedly, “I’m an entertainer of children and I like to draw.” But Ted also sublimates through his appetites, specifically, his sexual liaisons. His self-deprecation is at once deceptive and delusory. Ted thinks of himself in grander terms, but uses this phrase to describe his seeming simplicity in order to seduce women who are, apparently, just waiting to be beguiled (it helps here that Bridges plays the role, though even so, Ted’s line is utterly worn out).
The movie picks up as Ted hires an assistant for the summer, prep school student and eagerly aspiring writer, Eddie (Jon Foster). Lanky and awkward, Eddie arrives ready to hang on Ted’s every word and gesture, and he’s almost immediately taken aback by his ostensible mentor’s tendency to change clothes in front of him. The work is mostly menial — Ted sends the kid into town to purchase fresh squid’s ink, his preferred precious medium for drawing, or has him retype the previous day’s work on his electric typewriter, changing one word at a time. But Eddie is smitten, keen to absorb what he can. And Ted is pleased to hold forth: “Part of writing that involves a certain amount of manipulation. Be specific: smells, tastes, detail.”
And then he meets Ted’s wife, Marion (Kim Basinger). Gorgeous, pained, and remote, as she sits, sweatered and windblown, on a lounge chair overlooking the sea, she’s the stunning embodiment of some sort of adolescent boy’s dream (this would be the familiar literary convention, à la Stacy’s mom, who’s got it goin’ on). She has Eddie drive her into town (“I know boys your age,” she says ominously, “They love to drive every chance they get”), and leaves Ruthie in the care of a neighbor girl, Alice (Bijou Phillips, charming as she can muster, but whose casting as a babysitter suggests these parents are not paying much attention to their daughter’s welfare).
Eddie soon notices that Marion’s lonely sorrow is compounded by Ted’s philandering; she describes it in terms of stages: he seduces local women by offering to draw them, then demeans and dumps them (his favorite song, he tells Eddie while in the car one day, is Khia’s “My Neck, My Back,” suggesting just a little bit about his body parts fixation). As Marion tells Eddie, the current mistress, Evelyn Vaughn, “is going through the degrading phase right now.” Evelyn’s eventual effort at revenge is offered up as a series of arrhythmic antics (ripped up drawings sailing through the seaside air, a kind of car chase, and a confused gardener, Eduardo [Louis Arcella]), but only underlines the pathetic self-indulgence and abusiveness of all of these so-called adults. (Again, this is an Irving trademark, the self-hating and much humiliated woman as wholly irritating “comic” device.)
The designated naïf in this mess, Eddie is easily sucked into this emotional maelstrom, and soon starts bedding Marion, whose interest in him is odiously incestuous (he resembles a photo of her prep school athlete sons) and so, necrophilic. Even a dolt like Eddie might, in another movie, see the many layers of exploitation in this relationship, and yet this good student persists, as abusive and self-involved as his mentor.
When Eddie asks Marion why she hasn’t left her husband, she says (by way of not-quite explanation), “Ted understands me. Ted’s the only one who really knows what happened to me.” Marion is so damaged, the film asserts, that she can’t describe “what happened”; instead, when asked to do so, she lapses into a kind of waking coma, unable to move or speak, her eyes open, vacant and haunted. As if on cue, “what happened” is then revealed in grimly detailed flashback, such that you might appreciate the depth of her woe.
Presumably, this depth motivates her sexual experimentation with Eddie, as they try out various positions, in places where they are sure to be found out — for instance, the very bed that Ruthie so values as it appears in a photo of her brothers. (This particular photo, which features Marion in the bed, and only her sons’ feet peeking out beneath the covers, provides Eddie with his own fetish object when he sticks paper over the little peeky feet so that he can masturbate with the photo; this indulgence makes Eddie a little too aware of the incestuous issues, and a little too willing to ignore them.)
When Ruthie does discover her mother with Eddie (doggy-style), Ted comes to a bizarre sort of “rescue,” as Marion essentially collapses under the weight of her own guilt. Again, her rationale is at once cryptic and fundamentally accusatory: “I’d rather be no mother than a bad mother,” she sighs, as she doesn’t quite justify her abandonment of all her children — Ted, Eddie, and Ruth. She is, in Irving’s universe, the perfect muse, the victim you can blame.
Ted, however, knows how to hit back. “Surely,” he intones to Eddie, “It was a mistake to let Ruthie see you together.” No matter the child’s trauma: the film is, at last, all about Eddie’s coming to pseudo-artistic consciousness. This is the simplest and really, most simplistic, way to resolve this set of tragedies, and makes Marion’s anguish look too much like his means to maturity.