At many points during In the Bedroom, I almost imagined I was watching an Australian film. In its depiction of a sleepy small town and heavy-handed use of fishing metaphors, it resembles Mullet (2001). But the movie with which it shares the greatest affinity is Lantana (2001).
If one concentrated on the Barbara Hershey-Geoffrey Rush relationship from that film, took away some minor characters and added a smidgin more suspense and violence, one would have the core of In the Bedroom.
Ruth (Sissy Spacek) is disturbed by the relationship of her son Frank (Nick Stahl) with Natalie (Marisa Tomei), who is older than him, of a lower class, and involved with a shady ex-husband, Richard (William Mapother). Ruth's husband, Matt (Tom Wilkinson), tries to hold everybody together with strained politeness.
Field uses his extended running time of one-hundred-and-thirty-two minutes to build slowly up to a horrific event, and then, just as gradually, to its dramatic consequence.
As in Lantana, director Todd Field and his co-writer Rob Festinger show how grief leads to the deterioration of a marriage – lack of communication between the partners and a growing alienation within each of them.
In the Bedroom has arrived with much hype from the quality American press. Some of this praise is justified, especially in relation to the performances. Wilkinson, Tomei and especially Spacek are outstanding, and Field (who acted in Eyes Wide Shut ) knows how to give them the space and time they need to reach the deepest levels of their characters.
The film appeals to those for whom You Can Count On Me (2000) is the pinnacle of cinema art (rather than just a very good film) – in other words, movies redolent of literature or theatre, concentrating on human behaviour to the detriment of any formal aspect of film style.
American critics have, however, a specific, even chilling attraction to this film. Made well before the events of September 11 but widely shown after it, the film speaks to a nation's desire for revenge. One reviewer went so far as to fervently suggest that it validates any violent reprise that can arise from justifiable anger.
But the film is surely ambiguous on this point. Responding to J. Hoberman's damning description of it as "granola Death Wish" – in other words, a revenge fantasy for the middlebrow crowd – Field stated that, for him, Matt and Ruth enter into a greater horror, and dehumanise themselves still further, the instant they contemplate such a path.
For me, In the Bedroom is a disappointment. Many key scenes – such as a ferocious argument between Matt and Ruth, or a scene where Matt's card-playing buddies try to address his grief – are weakly conceived and handled, falling into the kind of Hollywood cliché which Field so clearly wants to avoid.
I also doubt whether the film really has a handle on what it is about, or what it is saying – hence creating the kind of solemn smokescreen which naturally leads to wildly conflicting interpretations.
© Adrian Martin January 2002