Rated R - Running Time: 2:10 - Released 12/25/01

A sense of tension resonates through the entire length of Todd Field's In the Bedroom, a chilling drama about murder and its many repercussions in a quiet New England town. Field, in his feature debut, shows a unique style in his choices of scene; every angle seems to reveal more than first meets the eye, and every pause seems to contain some important subtext. It almost reminds me of a Kubrick film. The script, on the other hand, reminds me of Pinter. Written by Robert Festinger and director Field, from a story called Killings by the late Andre Dubus, it deals with the desperate lengths to which one will go to erase the memory of a tragic event, but the text is not simply a straightforward account; it is weighted with the undercurrent of a lifetime of withheld emotions and the consequence of things long left unsaid. It features excellent, understated performances by Sissy Spacek, Tom Wilkinson, and Marisa Tomei.

When we first meet Natalie (Tomei) and Frank (Nick Stahl), they seem like a happy young couple with no cares in the world. We soon learn, however, that Natalie, who is considerably older than Frank, is not yet divorced from her estranged and hot-tempered husband Richard (William Mapother), with whom she has two children. Frank's mother Ruth (Spacek) doesn't approve of the relationship, since Frank is supposed to be leaving for grad school in the fall and he doesn't seem to be very serious about Natalie. His dad, however, Dr. Matt Fowler (Wilkinson), doesn't see anything wrong with Frank sowing a few wild oats during the summer before his freshman year, and he enjoys having the kids around the house anyway. But things turn serious when Richard decides he wants to patch things up with Natalie and a scuffle between him and Frank ends in murder. The family is plunged into a tense court case in which Natalie is the only witness, and into the spotlight of their small Maine town. An emotional wedge is driven between Ruth and Matt, forcing them to confront issues about which they have long remained silent, and they are finally driven to desperate lengths to try to repair their disturbed tranquility and their forever altered relationship.

This is a very slow-moving drama; the pace is deliberate, but it seldom gets bogged down in pretentious stylistic gesticulation. There are long sequences where Field's camera switches between angles with no sound, giving telling glimpses of the characters, the situation, and/or the scenery, saying volumes without anyone uttering a word. Wilkinson and Spacek, reserved though they are, deftly portray the undercurrent of frustration and resentment that has been simmering below the surface of their marriage for years, waiting for an event such as this to set it off. Tomei is flustered, torn, and beautifully disheveled; her delivery is flawless as the unwanted stepdaughter of the older couple, suddenly out of her league in emotional and psychological depth. Her presence is the reason for much of the trouble between Matt and Ruth—and in fact for the film's main conflict—and she is painfully aware of this.

Good performances by Stahl, Mapother, and the rest of the supporting cast pull the film together as a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Field has distinguished himself well in his first feature outing, as have his co-writers, and Spacek and Wilkinson and Tomei prove themselves equal to the challenge of bringing his vision to the screen. ****½

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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