"You know the old saying: Two's company, three's a crowd," Matt Fowler says, holding up for a small boy's inspection a lobster that's lost a claw in a crowded trap. "More than two of these in a bedroom, chances are something like this will happen."
"In the Bedroom," actor Todd Field's impressive directing debut, deals with what can happen when there are three in a bedroom, or even two. An unadorned, unflinching film about fierce and terrifying passions, "Bedroom" uses exceptional acting from Sissy Spacek, Tom Wilkinson, Marisa Tomei and others to tell a story of anger and grief, of grappling with the unthinkable. It's a wrenching narrative, but because it's told with quiet sureness, with emotions and personalities that ring true, it pulls us in and does not let go.
That restrained intensity, the film's inherent feeling tone, comes directly from the excellent 18-page short story by Andre Dubus that "Bedroom" is based on. The script, written by Field and Rob Festinger, smartly builds on that core, using Dubus' dialogue wherever possible and expanding the narrative to actually show us events that the short story only implied. When it came to directing what was written, Field (best known for his role in "Eyes Wide Shut") has so completely merged with the material that it feels as if he became it and it became him. Each scene has its purpose and its weight, every image feels carefully thought out, every addition to the story--from moving it from Massachusetts to Field's home state of Maine to making use of the haunting, ethereal music of the Newark Balkan Girls Chorus of tiny Newark, Vt.--adds something of value.
Field also reveals a gift for working with his performers. That's rarer than might be imagined for actor-directors, who often fall prey to indulging the excesses of others. By contrast, Field has somehow empowered the cast to feel deeply without overdoing it, to sink into their characters without giving way to excessive emotionalism.
This is above all true of Spacek and Wilkinson (an excellent British actor seen in "The Full Monty," "The Patriot" and "Shakespeare in Love"), whose work together earned them a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. For Spacek particularly, a five-time Oscar-nominated actress who doesn't work as regularly as she used to, this is one of the great roles of a distinguished career, a part that plays to her particular strengths and gains power from the accumulated heft of her past work.
Spacek and Wilkinson play Ruth and Matt Fowler, a contentedly married middle-aged couple. They live in Camden, Maine, where Matt, whose father was a lobsterman, is one of the town's doctors and Ruth teaches choral music at the local high school. Though Ruth has a major recital coming up, neither she nor her husband is focused on work this particular New England summer, but rather on the romantic life of their son Frank (Nick Stahl, who debuted in Mel Gibson's "The Man Without a Face").
A sensitive young man with something of the air of a boyish prince, Frank is spending the time between college and graduate school in architecture following in his grandfather's footsteps by trapping lobsters and immersing himself in what he calls "a summer thing" with Natalie Strout (Tomei).
Matt tends to be indulgent of his son, while his more demanding, judgmental mother thinks Frank's relationship with Natalie is problematic. She's a few years older than Frank, not particularly well-educated or well-placed on the socioeconomic scale, with two young children and an unresolved relationship with the husband she's separated from. He's William Strout (an especially effective William Mapother), the son of one of the town's most influential citizens who carries a sense of indefinable menace around with him like a second skin.
It's in large measure a tribute to Tomei--natural, unforced, doing quite the best work of her career--that we understand the dynamics of these relationships. She has the kind of beauty that crosses class lines, and she has an artlessness that Frank would find attractive and his mother consider suspect.
Events place these people in a crisis situation, and one of the strengths of "In the Bedroom" is how it allows us to see the characters, especially Matt and Ruth, change in front of our eyes as they are all but consumed by their emotions. The raw scenes played out between husband and wife are especially lacerating, savage in a way that can only happen when two people have intimate knowledge of each other and aren't afraid to use it.
Judiciously trimmed by eight minutes from the version that played in Sundance, "In the Bedroom" rewards the confidence it has in its story, its acting, its truths. With performances that will raise the hairs on the back of your head, it's a film that knows the private geography of love, grief and obsession.
MPAA rating: R, for some violence and language. Times guidelines: adult subject matter and brief scenes of violence, one of which is especially intense.
'In the Bedroom'
Sissy Spacek: Ruth Fowler
Tom Wilkinson: Matt Fowler
Nick Stahl: Frank Fowler
Marisa Tomei: Natalie Strout
William Mapother: Richard Strout
Greenstreet Films presents a Good Machine production, released by Miramax Films. Director Todd Field. Producers Graham Leader, Ross Katz, Todd Field. Executive producers Ted Hope, John Penotti. Screenplay Rob Festinger, Todd Field, based on a story by Andre Dubus. Cinematographer Antonio Calvache. Editor Frank Reynolds. Costumes Melissa Economy. Music Thomas Newman. Sets Shannon Hart. Set decoratoJoshua Outerbidge. Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes.