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With: Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek, Marisa Tomei, Nick Stahl, William Mapother, Karen Allen
Written by: Todd Field and Robert Festinger, based on a short story by Andre Dubus
Directed by: Todd Field
MPAA Rating: R for some violence and language
Running Time: 130
Date: 01/19/2001

In the Bedroom (2001)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

A 'Room' at the Top

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I was lucky enough to see In the Bedroom at last October's Mill Valley Film Festival knowing absolutely nothing about it, which is perhaps the best way to see it. About a half an hour in, I witnessed a sequence so unexpected and so shocking that it left my jaw on the floor for the next several minutes.

Now I'm left with the problem of describing this remarkable new film without divulging what it was that shocked me.

The film begins with two seemingly carefree lovers enjoying a romp in the grass. They are Frank Fowler (Nick Stahl) and the older Natalie Strout (Marisa Tomei), who is divorced and has a child. Frank is college age and is currently debating whether or not to go off to college or to stay in his small town home, continue to work on a fishing boat, and be with Natalie.

In the Bedroom marks the feature directorial debut of actor Todd Field, who is perhaps best known as the piano player Nick Nightingale who tells Tom Cruise about the sex party in Eyes Wide Shut. In working with Stanley Kubrick, Field seems to have learned patience, allowing scenes to develop slowly and organically. But he's also learned how to pick us up and carry us along in his storytelling, manipulating us with sounds and shocking cuts, suddenly ending a quiet scene to begin a noisy one.

As the film goes on, the focus shifts to Frank's parents, Matt and Ruth, beautifully played by Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek, respectively. Field establishes them early on by simply watching their routines, such as listening to Red Sox games on the radio. Matt shows up to have lunch every day with his son, while we see Ruth in the kitchen performing her domestic duties while hiding a deep sadness.

But after the film's shocking centerpiece, Matt and Ruth find that they no longer need to hide their feelings. Field shows them quietly reflecting, exploring an empty room in the house, watching TV, or engaging in shouting matches with one another. One such conversation comes late in the film where Matt and Ruth explode, unleashing horrible accusations upon each other. They understand each other as only a husband and wife can and they each diagnose deep-rooted fears and desires in one another. It's a painful scene entrenched in truth that comes out of broken hearts. No Hollywood movie-machine like Ron Howard or Lasse Hallstrom could create such a scene.

Eventually we sit in our seats begging for release from the film's awful tension. And though the film does provide that release, it also feels like the film's biggest flaw. To say it as loosely as possible, the climax pivots on an act of revenge, and Field allows it to happen in a primal way, much like a Rambo film. In retrospect, it doesn't quite feel earned and it doesn't follow the openness of the rest of the film.

That feels like a small quibble, a pebble in the driveway of easily the most powerful American directorial debut since last year's George Washington. See it before you hear too much about it.

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