The Door in the Floor
The Door in the Floor

USA, 2004. Rated R. 111 minutes.

Cast: Jeff Bridges, Kim Basinger, Jon Foster, Elle Fanning, Mimi Rogers, Bijou Phillips, Louis Arcella
Writer: Tod Williams, based on A Widow for One Year, by John Irving
Original Music: Marcelo Zarvos
Cinematography: Terry Stacey
Producers: Ted Hope, Anne Carey, Michael Corrente
Director: Tod Williams


Grade: B+ Review by Carlo Cavagna

Read the AboutFilm interviews with Jeff Bridges, Kim Basinger, and Jon Foster.

Writer/director Tod Williams' debut, a dramedy called The Adventures of Sebastian Cole, evoked many comparisons to novelist John Irving. It was a coming of age story that felt literary even though the screenplay was original; it dealt with deteriorating family bonds with odd elements like a cross-dressing dad; it just had that Irving feel. No surprise, therefore, that for his second movie, Williams has chosen to adapt an actual Irving novel, A Widow for One Year. More precisely, he has adapted just the lengthy book's first third, which does stand alone as a complete story unto itself. If you've read the book, you might think of The Door in the Floor as just A Widow for One Summer.

Meet Ted Cole (Jeff Bridges), a failed writer of adult books and a successful writer of children's books. Ted parades around his Long Island mansion in the nude, plays squash in a caftan, and burns though a series of mistresses (including Mimi Rogers) that he draws in the nude, in progressively more degrading poses. Lacking any sense of boundaries, he'll even hit on a mother and a daughter simultaneously. Yet somehow, this hedonist is a family man who cares for his emotionally frozen wife Marion (Kim Basinger) and dotes on his five-year-old daughter Ruth (Elle Fanning). His work has a reputation for perspicacious insight into children's hopes and, especially, fears.

A horrible tragedy lurks in Ted and Marion's past. They have lost their two teenaged sons, and are each dealing (or better, not dealing) with it in their own way. Ruth, born after the death of her older brothers, is a failed attempt to erase their grief. She has absorbed the unhealthy morbidity permeating the house, and reflects it back with an obsessive-compulsive disorder focused on the shrine of photographs of her brothers. She studies them every day, and can't bear to have a single one out of place, while her parents encourage her fetishistic fascination. The Cole household is dead, but obsessed with recalling a time when it was alive.

Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger
Jeff Bridges proposes a trial separation to Kim Basinger in The Door in the Floor.

Ted comes up with a couple harebrained ideas about how to shake his wife out of her emotional stupor. He suggests a trial separation for the summer. Marion will spend her nights in the small apartment in town that Ted uses as his office, but since he must work there, she'll have to go back to the mansion during the day. Ted also decides bring a new face into this poisonous atmosphere, giving a summer job to a kid hoping to learn about writing. That kid turns out to be Eddie (Jon Foster).

The first thing you notice about Eddie is that he and Ted have the same name. Since this story is a work of fiction, their names have been specifically chosen. Therefore, the parallel is not a coincidence. Even more suspicious, Eddie's duties are vague. Ted pretends to give him editing assignments and other errands involving squid ink, but he doesn't really have anything for Eddie to do beyond acting as chauffeur. So it seems, anyway.

Eddie doesn't care to interact with Ruth's nanny Alice (Bijou Phillips) or the young people hanging out at the beach. Instead he develops his own obsession. Marion's photographs and clothes become catalysts for his masturbatory fantasies. When Marion finds out, she lays out clothes for him to fantasize about, and eventually a sexual relationship develops—an weird, incestuous relationship that Williams portrays explicitly, including a totally nude scene between young Jon Foster and fifty-one year-old (if you can believe it) Kim Basinger. An obvious part of Eddie's appeal is that he reminds Marion of her sons. Before their first liaison, Marion wonders if her children had experienced sex before they died. Soon Marion is smiling for the first time since the tragedy, and Ted notices. He has manipulated this entire situation, of course, though his goals are open to interpretation.

Ted's most famous children's book is called The Door in the Floor. At one point Ted reads the unsettling story aloud in its entirety. “The little boy was afraid of what was under the door in the floor, and the mommy was afraid, too. Once, long ago, other children had come to visit the cabin for Christmas, but the children had opened the door in the floor and they had disappeared down the hole,” the story reads in part. Though a college student is convinced the door represents a vagina, the tale is obviously a metaphor for Ted and Marion's loss. The illustrations we see in the film are Bridges' own work, as is the other artwork, with the exception of the life drawings of Mimi Rogers.

The photography's rich but muted colors match the tone of the film. The first frames of the film are out of focus, just like the characters, who come into focus only gradually. Bridges, a consistently under-appreciated actor, does arguably the best work of his career in The Door in the Floor, integrating extreme behavior, questionable actions, and strong force of will into a cohesive individual with a rich emotional life. There are not many other actors who could humanize a guy like Ted. Basinger, as a walled off but fragile woman in grief, gives the first performance since winning her Oscar that suggests she is worthy of the statuette. A touching, wordless scene between Basinger and Bridges late in the film, in which everything is communicated through their eyes, is a masterpiece of acting. Then there's Elle Fanning, even more of a preternatural old soul than her elder sister Dakota and possibly just as talented. To put it bluntly, she will freak you out.

At one point Irving and Williams speak directly to the audience through Ted, as he lectures Eddie on writing. He observes, “Pain, betrayal, even death. Everything in fiction is a tool.” Certainly, this is true. A tool for what, though? What, if anything, does Irving's story mean, or tell us about ourselves? This quiet, ambiguous, European-style film may surprise you by how long it stays with you, challenging you to answer that question. It might just prompt you to seek out the novel, to learn where Ruth and Eddie end up as adults.

Review © July 2004 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2004 Focus Features, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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