A lovely woman runs through a field of flowers on a beautiful, balmy day. Her much younger lover playfully chases her. They meet and kiss. No, this is not the opening scene of a great romance. Instead, it’s the beginning of In the Bedroom, one of the year’s most intense cinematic dramas. Although I’ve complained loudly about lack of character development in recent movies, I have no such complaint here. Seldom does a film spend so much time giving the audience in-depth information about the people involved.
Dr. Matt Fowler (Tom Wilkinson) first appears as someone I’d like to know. A general practitioner in a small Maine village, he takes time to help his son with his work as a lobsterman. Matt is soft-spoken, friendly, dignified, and a little envious of his son’s youth. But he dotes on Frank (Nick Stahl), who’s working to save money for his architectural studies, and wants the best for him. Ruth (Sissy Spacek), Matt’s wife, teaches choral music and also loves their son --- in her own way. Over-protective and judgmental, she does nothing to hide her contempt about his involvement with Natalie (a better-than-ever Marisa Tomei, Oscar-winner for My Cousin Vinny), who has children of her own.
While watching Wilkinson (The Full Monty) and Oscar-winner Spacek (Coal Miner's Daughter) as parents of a college-aged son who falls for a thirtysomething woman, I felt I knew them intimately. It’s almost as if I’d been eavesdropping on them. When Matt apologizes to Ruth for saying some terrible things to her, he admits, "No one should have to hear anything like that." He’s right --- maybe not even the audience. Still, because I didn’t want to miss the most shocking marital confrontation since Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, I fought the urge to cover my ears during their revealing conversation.
Families dealing with a personal tragedy share similar reactions. In the Bedroom highlights the most powerful ones --- grief, blame and a desire for revenge. (Warning: spoilers follow.) After their son is killed, Matt and Ruth blame each other as well as Frank’s girlfriend and her violent estranged husband (William Mapother). When their legal remedies seem hopeless, they choose another path --- one leading to a chilling conclusion.
Director Todd Fields’ In the Bedroom invites comparison with Robert Redford’s Oscar-winning Ordinary People (1980). Both deal with a married couple’s reaction to the loss of a son. Like Mary Tyler Moore in the latter, Spacek delivers a performance simmering with rage just waiting to explode. And Wilkinson, minus his British accent, comes across as a powerhouse of mixed emotions in the same way Donald Sutherland handled the father’s role in Ordinary People. I predict In the Bedroom will receive some Oscar nominations of its own this year, especially in the acting categories. (Editor's note: In the Bedroom earned Academy Award nominations for Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Screenplay, and Best Picture.)
Still, this movie put me in a funk. The ending troubled me deeply, and the film’s long periods of silence and amateurish fade-out techniques were quite annoying at times. Despite these faults, In the Bedroom is hard to top in terms of pure shock value and raw human emotion depicted on screen.
(Released by Miramax and rated "R" for some violence and language.)