Movies We Like
In The Bedroom
In Hollywood films about revenge a grieving family or friend or lover typically realizes that the only way to bring closure to the loss of a loved one is to turn vigilante and mete out the justice they were denied and we are usually meant to cheer them on as populist heroes. But in the 2001 film In the Bedroom, the "grieving family avenging a loved one" plot may be a familiar one but its execution is decidedly not because the cheap and manipulative tactics that get us as an audience fired up for spilled blood are nowhere to be found. This story of a middle aged couple dealing with the tragic death of their son and falling apart as their anger consumes them is the rare film where the idea of grief is not just a pretext for something “bigger.” The visceral, teeth-gnashing sense of loss that death brings—especially the grief that follows unexpected violent death—is allowed to unfold and hang in the air like the slow heavy unstoppable force of nature that it is and it’s unforgettable. This is the rare film about grief and death and vengeance that has no room for histrionics. It has no false notes. The director, Todd Field, is shockingly assured for what was his first feature length film and the incredible cast including Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek, Nick Stahl, and Marisa Tomei hit rare notes of emotional honesty in their work.
Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek play Matt and Ruth Fowler, a well off middle aged couple getting on in their years in their small coastal Maine town. Matt is a town doctor and Ruth is the high school choir director. Their son Frank (played by Nick Stahl) is home for the summer before he starts college in the fall. He is seeing Natalie, a woman twice his age (played by the gorgeous and intriguing Marisa Tomei) with two small children, and this situation is cause for his mother’s concern and his father’s shy sense of pride in his son becoming a man.
The director, Todd Field, takes his time in establishing the mood of the film. There is a languorous sensuality to the images full of soft light and the natural sound of leaves rustling that evokes the sleepy stir of lazy days. It’s an ideal setting for two young lovers to take to one another, but the hush of such a quiet town in summer creates an ominous sense of danger that shadows Frank and Natalie’s summer romance. There’s a sense that the sleepy rhythms of their relationship could be destroyed by something unexpected. It’s just too quiet.
The age difference and life experience divide are not the only disparities between Natalie and Frank. Natalie comes from a working class world that the Fowlers were never a part of. What’s more, Natalie is married but estranged from her loose cannon screw-up of a husband, Richard (played by William Mapother) who has an edgy explosive temper and a reputation in the town as a spoiled brat—he comes from wealth. Frank, determined to rise to the occasion, tries to play it cool and be decent towards Richard while at the same time seeming in control of the situation. But it’s clear that it’s only a matter of time before tensions erupt. Richard has no sense of boundaries and keeps testing the ones put in front of him. Ruth Fowler tries to keep her natural snobbery about what she thinks of as an appalling situation to herself for her son’s sake, but it’s clear that she finds the domestic drama that Frank is involved in to be hardly suitable for him.
Richard grows more unhinged and threatening towards Frank and Natalie. Frank, at Natalie’s house one summer afternoon when Richard comes over, refuses to let him in. It’s interesting to note that Frank doesn’t even try to be the hero in this situation but maturely and calmly tells Richard that he will call the police if Richard doesn’t get off of the property. But Richard gets in through the back door and, with no apparent emotion, pulls out a gun and fatally shoots Frank. This single act of violence radically alters the emotional tenor of the film in a way that is unforgettably chilling. It rips us from this moody think piece about family and class dynamics in a small Maine town and suddenly it turns unbelievably grim.
It is riveting to watch Wilkinson and Spacek act out the stages of a couple’s grief for an event that their characters could never have imagined possible. They are a completely ordinary couple grappling with the heartbreaking task of burying their only kid and it’s emotionally exhausting just to watch, especially once the anger sets in and they chart a course towards the unthinkable. They snipe at each other when they are down. Ruth, already kind of a hot head, now tears into Matt with devastating abandon. She needles him at every turn and knows just which words will sting the most. His reaction is one of revulsion at her willingness to go so below the belt. Life ceases to be enjoyable on any level for the Fowlers. Their jobs, their friends, the day to day pleasures of living in their seaside town so exquisitely rendered in the first half of the film all fade out once their anger over their dead son sets in. It’s not that life was perfect before Frank’s killing but that it was so normal. And now, with their sense of normal life irrevocably shattered, they can’t even comfort each other. They both hurt too much. And to add insult to injury their son’s killer, Richard, is let out of jail pending trial. To have him ambling around town getting on with his pathetic life becomes intolerable to Ruth and Matt as if he is laughing at their tragedy that he created. Eventually with Ruth’s insistence, Matt plans a way to kill Richard before he goes to trial.
Matt’s revenge plan against Richard is carried out in the most mundane fashion imaginable. The movie does not glamorize the idea of avenging a loved one’s death by going after their killers the way that so many movies do. It is carried out coldly and methodically, a grim end to the awful situation the Fowlers have found themselves in. There is nothing to cheer even if we can empathize completely with what the Fowlers are doing. When Matt returns from his cold blooded crusade, his feelings buried, he gets in bed. Ruth tells him she will make him coffee because he must be very tired. It’s such a sad ending but it’s the right ending and it stays with you just like everything else about this amazing film.
In The Bedroom was nominated for 5 Oscars including Best Actor (Tom Wilkinson), Best Actress (Sissy Spacek), Best Supporting Actress (Marisa Tomei), and Best Picture.