In the Bedroom

In the Bedroom

USA, 2001. Rated R. 136 minutes.

Cast: Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek, Marisa Tomei, Nick Stahl, William Mapother, William Wise, Celia Weston, Karen Allen, Frank T. Wells, W. Clapham Murray, Justin Ashforth
Writers: Todd Field and Robert Festinger, based on the short story "Killings" by Andre Dubus
Music: Thomas Newman
Cinematographer: Antonio Calvache
Producers: Todd Field, Ross Katz, Graham Leader
Director: Todd Field


Grade: A Analysis by Carlo Cavagna

Note: This analysis discusses the story in full, including the ending, and therefore contains spoilers. It is intended for readers who have already seen the film.

The best drama of 2001, In the Bedroom, packs an emotional punch that by the end leaves you reeling…if you have the patience for it. Based on a short story by Andre Dubus called "Killings," the movie's interest is not in the killings per se, but in how the characters get to the killings and the killings' effects on the survivors. To emphasize this focus, many major plot developments occur off-camera, including the precise moment of the first shooting and the scene in which Matt Fowler (Tom Wilkinson) informs his wife Ruth (Sissy Spacek) that their son Frank (Nick Stahl) has been killed. First-time director Todd Field shows only Matt standing in the hall outside the rehearsal room, where Ruth teaches music, wordlessly working up the courage to go in and shatter his wife's world.

Because In the Bedroom can be mistaken for just a languid portrait of the stages of grief, the revenge killing at the end could, upon casual observation, seem inconsistent in tone with the rest of the film. It isn't. In the Bedroom is a film of superlative detail--detail that, if you pay attention to it, shows that the story ends up where it does because there is no other place for it to go. There is a sense of inevitability to the ending, just as there is with the first killing.
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In the case of most real life tragedies, there are usually several contributing factors that form an explosive mix just waiting for the right catalyst. Frank's murder by Richard (William Mapother), the first killing, is no different. The most obvious factor--other than Richard being a violent, abusive asshole--is Natalie Strout's (Marisa Tomei) inability to defuse a situation whose obvious danger she willfully ignores. She won't break things off with Frank and is unwilling to avail herself of any legal means to keep Richard away. The fact that she married Richard in the first place is itself a monument to her lack of good judgment.

There are other contributing factors as well. As a father, Matt has failed to set boundaries for his still-teenaged son. Matt is indulgent of Frank's affair with a much older not-yet-divorced mother of two--he won't confront his son or question his behavior. After Frank's death, Ruth seethes with suppressed rage at Matt's permissiveness and Natalie's selfishness, but she's not absolved of responsibility. Overcompensating for Matt's hands-off style, Ruth is too controlling. Her relationship with Frank is strained. On some level, carrying on with Natalie gives Frank the satisfaction of spiting his mother.

A prominent feature of In the Bedroom is its lack of verbal communication. Silent anguish permeates the film. Matt and Ruth avoid discussing their pain and fail to provide each other the emotional support necessary to put the tragedy behind them. Finally, the recriminations burst out in one of the most natural marital arguments ever seen on film. Matt and Ruth hurl cutting accusations at each other. None of them are entirely unfounded, but all are hurtful in the extreme.

Matt and Ruth's failure to process their grief makes the second killing inevitable. When Richard, out on bail, begins to appear around town and it looks like he might spend only five years in jail for manslaughter, Ruth finds it too much to bear. Marisa Tomei and Nick StahlHer need for vengeance becomes more pronounced, as does Matt's. They have failed to take any actions, such as actually sharing their feelings, that might have begun to cleanse them of their grief and anger; therefore, they have too many bottled-up painful feelings needing an outlet. That outlet becomes an act of revenge. Murdering their son's killer becomes necessary to continue living.

The patience of the film is, in part, why the ending works so well. In the Bedroom is so assured, so well written, that you completely understand how Matt experiences the world. You understand how, from his point of view, Matt has no choice but to kill. His wife is emotionally manipulating him into taking action, and it's obvious that neither of them will ever be able to return to any semblance of normalcy without a desperate act of closure. Field's achievement is that he wraps you up so tightly in Matt's psychology that you never step outside of him and say, "Wait, this is vigilante justice; what a load of dangerous crap!" Matt's revenge is dangerous vigilante justice, but the film makes you feel as if, in his situation, you might do the exact same thing.

Of course, Field is not advocating vigilante justice. He's not advocating much of anything. He's telling a story, and in the process, he paints a finely detailed portrait of how grief and anger can fester, coloring your entire world. There is a scene that symbolizes how Matt and Ruth are dealing with their grief: the moment when Ruth takes a container of food out of her refrigerator, sniffs it to discover that it smells foul, and puts it back inside instead of throwing it out. If Field is advocating anything, it is to be aware of your feelings and not shut them away if they're too painful, because they can destroy you.

At the end, Matt's removal of the bandage from his finger to find that his cut has scabbed over may signify that his emotional wound has also scabbed over. Killing their son's killer could allow Matt and Ruth to do what they could not do on their own--get over their son's death. If so, it comes with a price, as Matt's demeanor and expression in the final scenes makes clear. Matt has to live with the knowledge that he has murdered, and that some part of himself is no better than Richard.

Matt must also live in fear of someday being discovered. Being caught seems unlikely, thanks to the participation of Matt's friend Willis (William Wise), with whom Matt shares an intimate bond that goes back decades. Wilkinson holding lobster trapField declines to show us the scene where Willis agrees, or perhaps offers, to help Matt, but his participation is believable because Field has taken time to establish the longstanding nature of their friendship. In one of the film's ironies, Matt and Willis don't need to talk much to understand each other perfectly, a quality Matt and Ruth's relationship lacks. Although the two friends have planned the murder well, Matt would be the most logical suspect if the police come to suspect foul play.

The film's central metaphor is its title. As it turns out, the titular bedroom is not a bedroom at all, but the interior of a lobster trap. In an early scene, Matt explains how the trap can only accommodate one or two lobsters. Once a third lobster gets in, the lobsters tend to hack each other to pieces. In the case of both killings, three is a destructive number. The three must become two. Richard kills Frank because he can't stand for Natalie to share her life with another man. Matt kills Richard because he and Ruth cannot go on existing in a world in which Richard also exists. Matt and Ruth's desire for revenge is natural, but their need for it goes beyond that natural desire. They are stuck in an emotional trap of their own making, and believe that killing Richard can free them. The trouble with this scenario is that, even if one of the lobsters dies, the other two are still stuck in the trap. Matt and Ruth's catharsis may prove illusory. Field doesn't reveal what happens next, though, leaving it up to viewers to decide whether Matt and Ruth have earned an uneasy tranquility.

In the Bedroom is a moving and powerful emotional profile superior to two other recent, patient low-budget dramas similarly drenched in sorrow and pain--Lantana and Monster's Ball. In the latter two films, characters also wrestle with grief and emptiness. They are both first-rate films, but they each contain a handful of contrivances that introduce a hint of falsity. By contrast, In the Bedroom is truthful in every detail. It is in those details that the beauty of the film lies.

Review © January 2002 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2001 Miramax Film Corp. All Rights Reserved.

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