Grief Observed

Todd Fields In the Bedroom

The actor Todd Field, who first got noticed playing suitor to Ashley Judd's troubled shop girl in Victor Nuñez's Ruby in Paradise, has turned director with a stately film about domestic tragedy that, if the ecstatic festival reaction at Sundance and Toronto this year is anything to go by, promises to be an indie smash. In the Bedroom, which stars Sissy Spacek and British actor Tom Wilkinson as a middle-aged couple grieving over the loss of their son, reclaims for artier markets territory usually monopolized by the television movie. There's no loss as devastating—or as likely to speak to a general audience—as the death of a child, an event at once common and extreme. Grief is a wild beast, endured in a host of fiercely individual ways that resist our best efforts to tame it into a "process" with predictable stages of recovery. There's the rub: the professionalization of sorrow has seeped so far into American culture and cinema that it's hard to conceive of a movie on the subject that isn't pat, preachy or hopelessly reductive. Think Ordinary People.

Based on a story by the late Andre Dubus, In the Bedroom goes the distance to avoid banalizing the dilemma of a reasonable couple unhinged by unreasonable events. The death of their only son doesn't occur until a full hour into the movie, which unfolds with a slow, respectful specificity that recalls the languorous scene-setting of Nuñez's graceful film, in which Florida appears, finally, as a place where ordinary people live. Here the setting is Field's native Maine, where Dubus also lived, and the town's unassuming life is painted with an achingly lovely—though hardly sentimental—sense of place. Camden is a quiet fishing town with a sense of community vibrant enough to blur the social-class hierarchy—up to a point. The local physician, Matt Fowler (Wilkinson), an easygoing Ivy Leaguer married to a high school music teacher, Ruth (Spacek), fishes for lobster and plays cards with the locals, including his best friend, Willis (William Wise), who owns the local family restaurant. The Fowlers' son, Frank (Nick Stahl), a college boy earning summer money for graduate school as a lobster fisherman, is romancing Natalie (Marisa Tomei), a single mother trying to shield herself and her two small boys from the filthy temper of her estranged husband, Richard (William Mapother, who brings to the role a sneering arrogance that would make Sean Penn, whom he closely resembles, quail).

By the time Frank dies, under horrifying circumstances, a whole world has been lovingly elaborated—its peaceful rhythms of work and rest, backyard barbecues and Little League games—and delicately encrusted with hints that all is not well in the Fowlers' apparently relaxed family life. Though Spacek appears a little strangled by her efforts at an East Coast Brahmin accent (almost all the actors in this movie are breathing heavily under brogues not their own), there's a sly wit to her rendering of Ruth's genteel condescension to her son's working-class lover, a posture nicely offset by the blowsy honesty of Tomei's Natalie, who's as loving as she is wise to the pressures that will be brought to bear on her relationship with a younger man—a boy, for all practical purposes—only just embarking on a more privileged life than she will ever know.

It's through Frank's increasingly serious affair with Natalie that the cracks in his parents' marriage begin to show, which becomes the movie's subject—and its partial undoing—after his death. Field's tactful pacing holds steady for a while longer, as the couple struggles to preserve a normal life. But then all manner of counseling-handbook wisdom and homogenizing talk-show prattle creep into the dialogue (written by Rob Festinger and Field), even as the Fowlers' marital angst evolves along predictable lines, as though it were doggedly following some therapy manual on the phases of grief. There follows a jarring foray into violence, as inorganic to the characters and the movie's tone as it is, apparently, motivated by the desire (Dubus', for all I know, although it works no more plausibly on the screen than it would on the page) to graft an 11th-hour thriller onto a hitherto calibrated study of domesticity under unbearable pressure. The intent may be to shift the moral center of the movie; the effect is that of a coarse wink.

In the Bedroom was directed by Todd Field; written by Rob Festinger and Field, based on a story by Andre Dubus; produced by Graham Leader, Ross Katz and Field; and stars Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson. Now playing at Edwards South Coast Village, Santa Ana.

 
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