Todd Field’s In the Bedroom is a masterful exploration of how individuals cope with tragedy, both in their own mind and in the context of an established romantic relationship. The film is set in a quiet Maine community and glamorizes nothing, instead being comfortable with creating a realistic but vivid world, harsh edges and all. It tells the story of an old couple whose college-age son falls for a divorced mother of two, and must deal with her aggressive ex-husband. The film is structured with abrupt act breaks which serve to keep the tones of each portion distinct, and the result is a complex treatise on an emotion-riddled subject. It offers us answers, yet makes no claim that they are the correct ones.
The film focuses on the members of the Fowler family: Matt, Ruth, and Frank. Matt (Tom Wilkinson) and Ruth (Sissy Spacek) play a venerable New England couple, and the film opens with a summer barbeque at their house. They have invited their son Frank (Nick Stahl) and his new girlfriend, Natalie (Marissa Tomei) and her family, but the party is crashed by her ex-husband, Richard (William Mapother). The tension is fairly palpable, but Frank handles everything reasonably well. Another altercation results in a fist fight where Frank earns himself a black eye, and this startles his mother. She insists that this relationship is dangerous, and wants Frank to focus on returning to school in the fall instead of an older woman with such cumbersome baggage. Her husband is much less concerned, and is successful in getting her to relent in her protestations.
Here is where the structure of the film approaches brilliance. The first act is abruptly concluded by a horrifying and physically sickening scene. Natalie’s husband breaks into her house while Frank is away with her two children and holds a tense, uncomfortable conversation with her. Eventually, Frank returns with the children just as Richard leaves, angry. Natalie pleads with Frank to lock all the doors and call the police, but Frank believes that Richard only wanted to scare her, and tells her to put the kids up in the bedroom. While she is there, Richard returns, Natalie hears a struggle and a gunshot, and she emerges finding Frank dead.
This scene is lengthy, it is skin-crawling, and its conclusion is tragic. It also catapults the film forward into the narrative space it will actually explore. The small-town community struggles to make sense of this tragic event as Frank’s parents deal with an ineffective justice system which releases Richard on bail. Brilliantly, the film never shows us what actually happened in the living room; we were with Natalie in the bedroom. Hence, there is no clear culpability with Frank’s death, and prosecutors are forced to recommend a charge of manslaughter. Confronting the sudden, violent death of one’s son is harrowing enough, but seeing his murderer in your aisle at the market forces it all back into your face as you’re least expecting it.
Matt and Ruth do not cope well in this new world. Ruth bickers and slumps through the day while Matt buries himself in work and seems to ignore everything. This behavior eventually culminates in a brutal, emotional confrontation between husband and wife – the kind that irreparably alters a relationship. Wilkinson and Spacek marvel in this particular scene, and it would be worth the price of admission alone, but there are myriad others that make this film a gorgeous study of uncomfortable emotional responses to tragedy. This scene bookends the second act much like Frank’s death did for the first, and it is accompanied by another swift change in tone. The final act continues the trend of complex emotional material and stews on the lack of easy answers to the Fowler’s sense of injustice, but it does provide a particularly visceral conclusion to the story nonetheless.
In The Bedroom was nominated for Academy Awards for both Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, and was also a reasonable commercial success given its modest budget. Director Todd Field expertly weaves an extraordinary narrative with a complex study of human emotion, injustice, and reconciliation while remaining singularly grounded in a stark, cold reality. Wilkinson, far more known for his character acting in films like Batman Begins and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, absolutely inhabits his despondent middle-aged father, and Spacek plays the shattered aloofness of his devastated wife beautifully as well. Even the smaller parts are impeccable, as Tomei, Stahl and Mapother contribute heavily to their scenes. In the Bedroom is certainly one of the lost gems of the 2000s, and deserves to be re-discovered. It simply must be experienced by all lovers of film.