by Ben Kenigsberg Too often, filmmakers use untimely death as plot device either to set a film in motion or to bring it to a swift resolution. But In the Bedroom ...

Print Email

by Ben Kenigsberg

Too often, filmmakers use untimely death as plot device either to set a film in motion or to bring it to a swift resolution. But

In the Bedroom

, the remarkable first feature film directed by actor Todd Field (

Eyes Wide Shut

), wants to explore the emotional toll that a death takes -- the void it leaves in the lives of others.

It's the best film about loss and grief since

The Sweet Hereafter


Ruth and Matt Fowler (Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson) lead relatively normal lives in small-town Maine. He's a doctor; she conducts a choir. Their only son, Frank (Nick Stahl, of


) is applying to architecture school, but he's currently perfectly satisfied trapping lobsters, just like his grandfather. Frank is having an affair with an older, not-quite-divorced woman, Natalie (Marisa Tomei). He loves her, and he loves her children. Frank is a better father to them, actually, than their real father, Richard (William Mapother), who abused Natalie and never managed to be there for his kids, even though, and the movie makes this clear, he cares about his children.

We can sense Frank's boyish insecurity, his affection and kindheartedness, and his ambivalence about his future career. Sure, he's talented enough -- and knowledgeable enough -- to be an architect, but he likes fishing. It's suggested that Matt, who gave up a fishing career for an Ivy League education, might prefer fishing to medicine. Matt comes down to the docks every day during his lunch hour to see Frank. Why? "I like spending time with my son," he says, a reason so honest that most films would replace it with something ostensibly more dramatic.

A due treatment of the film requires revealing certain surprises. I hate to do this, but if you don't know much about the film, clip this review and read it after you've seen it. And see it you must.

Jealous about Natalie, Richard murders Frank, but then goes free by paying bail.

Most of the film is about life after Frank's death -- particularly about Ruth and Matt's coping process. We sense their anger, their resentment, their desire to lash out, and their desire for revenge, however irrational it may be.

But the loss isn't purely theirs. In an almost deep-focus shot during Frank's funeral, we see Natalie standing in the background. Natalie is not merely the impetus for the murder. Since the movie gives every character due screen time, we soon learn that she's devastated by the loss as well. She also feels responsible.

Ruth and Matt are the meat of the film. Field traces their mourning process with fly-on-the-wall realism worthy of Ingmar Bergman at his most unsparing. The film is filled with remarkable scenes of wordless acting. During Frank's funeral, for instance, we watch Matt enter Frank's room. Matt notices Frank's clothes, placed on the bed as if he's about to use them. Matt ponders over Frank's pillow, which still has a bit of an impression in it. And Matt admires his son's architectural blueprints, which hang on the walls. Wilkinson's face tightens with pain. He squeezes out a particularly heavy tear.

If the film has a master shot -- a shot that sums up all its themes -- it's the shot of the indented pillow. It epitomizes the sudden emptiness that Ruth and Matt feel in their lives. One minute Frank was there, and now he's gone.

Ruth, who was less thrilled about Natalie than Matt in the first place, is less reserved than he is in her mourning. In a beautiful, heartbreaking shot, we see Ruth watching late-night television. The TV and Ruth's cigarette provide the main light in the scene; they cast an eerie glow on her pallid face.

Ruth keeps seeing Richard in town. She thinks that he has smiled at her, mocking her, but we're not so sure. Because of a technicality, it seems Richard will probably get away with a manslaughter charge. She can't bear to see him. She doesn't realize that he can't bear to see her.

In the Bedroom

is filled with the kind of verbal slip-ups that people talking to Ruth and Matt would naturally make. Ruth's friend, forgetting what exactly she's implying, tells Ruth about her wonderful vacation in Disney World with her grandchildren. Matt's friends can't even bring themselves to talk around the poker table anymore -- it's weird not having Frank there.

But the most starkly realistic scene -- for which Wilkinson and Spacek deserve two Oscars apiece -- shows Ruth and Matt fighting, trying to dispel their guilt and trying to shift blame for the murder. They both know better, but they both need catharsis, and the easiest way to find it is to chastise each other.

It's easily the best-acted scene in years. Field, himself a fine actor, clearly knows how to direct his own. There's not a flawed performance in the film. The endlessly intelligent script that Field wrote with Rob Festinger, from a story by Andre Dubus, gives the performers much to work with. There isn't a line of dialogue in the film that couldn't be spoken in real life.

In the Bedroom

is beautifully photographed by Antonio Calvache, who makes especially good use of reflections in windows to suggest voyeurism. Many of the unbroken shots in the film are just breathtaking.

In the Bedroom

, which derives its title both from the scene with Matt in Frank's bedroom and from some lobster-trapping term, is perfectly named: it's all about looking into a house while its occupants try simply to look out.

No Man's Land

, a dark comedy about a Bosnian and a Serb trapped in a trench between the front lines, is one of the most tense films of the year. It shows us how the situation in former Yugoslavia is tangled on many levels; it's not just an ethnic war, but a conflict between the media and the UN, the soldiers and the peacekeepers, and, most basically, the men on either side. Bosnian director Danis Tanovic, who made documentaries about the war, brings a personal feeling to the material that good films like Michael Winterbottom's

Welcome to Sarajevo