Setting Son

In the Bedroom, a couple's anguish turns to rage turns to rational madness

Dec 26, 2001 at 4:00 am
It took Andre Dubus all of 18 pages to communicate the grief that fills every frame of Todd Field's two-hours-plus In the Bedroom, a wrenching bit of filmmaking based on Dubus' short tale "Killings." Story and film tell the same tale in the same solemn and gripping tone, with the same horrific and poignant results: In a small New England town, a mother and father cope, clumsily and brutally, with crushing heartbreak when their son, off to the promise of college and career, is gunned down by the soon-to-be ex-husband of the boy's lover. In the Dubus story, the killing comes early; the tale begins at the funeral and leaps back and forth through time, like a bad memory the mind can't shake. But it's less a narrative of action than of reaction, how a mother and father manage with the unthinkable after so many years of fretting about their children's safety. The father, Dubus wrote, "felt that all the fears he had borne while they were growing up, and all the grief he had been afraid of, had backed up like a huge wave and struck him on the beach and swept him out to sea." Field's film allows us to spend a little more time with the son, and as a result it all but drowns us in the sorrow, along with the mother and father.

Director Field, an actor best known for playing Tom Cruise's piano-playing pal in Eyes Wide Shut, and co-writer Rob Festinger have at once streamlined and fleshed out Dubus' story. The father, Matt Fowler, is now a doctor and not a shopkeeper; the Fowlers have one son, not two; the setting is Maine, not Massachusetts. Theirs is almost as slavish an adaptation as Steven Kloves and Chris Columbus' fraidy-cat take on J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone; indeed, much of the dialogue is lifted from the printed page, as are whole scenes. But Kloves and Columbus fail to captivate or enlighten because their film destroys the imagination, because they allow no room for viewers to wander in delight and surprise; they give only what we expect, no more and certainly no less. Field and Festinger, on the other hand, have taken a stark outline and given its pain full color -- in, say, the red-rimmed eyes of a stoic Sissy Spacek as Ruth Fowler, the mother whose woe turns to fury, which in turn gives way to a sane sort of madness.

At film's beginning, Matt Fowler (Tom Wilkinson) and wife Ruth are as frisky as new lovers; they tease each other in the kitchen and please each other in the bedroom. Ruth is disquieted by the relationship their son Frank (Bully's Nick Stahl) has begun with Natalie (Marisa Tomei, finally giving a performance worthy of her Oscar), a young mother of two little boys not yet divorced from Richard Strout (William Mapother, Tom Cruise's cousin), whose family controls the cannery that dominates their tiny town of Camden, Maine. Ruth, a choral teacher at the local high school, frowns on Frank and Natalie's relationship; she's too old for the boy and burdened by too much baggage, and besides, if Frank truly does love her, it might stop the kid from going off to school to pursue his architecture dreams. Matt, a lifelong resident of Camden who's become the town's doctor, is more understanding -- perhaps, it's suggested, because he lives vicariously through his son, going to visit Frank during his afternoons trolling the ocean for lobster. The son is everything the father was and is no longer: taut, vibrant, his whole life ahead of him (and, likely, away from Maine).

But such promise is dashed in a moment of rage: Richard, with a single gunshot, murders Frank and, in effect, an entire family. Matt and Ruth, so loving at first, grow cold and incommunicative after the tragedy -- as though they blame themselves and each other with equal ferocity. Matt begins drinking too much, Ruth starts chain-smoking -- anything to keep from having to talk about what happened. And when they do speak to each other, it's with dialogue and delivery so real it slices the heart; Spacek and Wilkinson, sputtering and shouting through tears of culpability, make us feel like voyeurs.

In the Bedroom can, at times, be too overwhelming; Field allows for no humor, no escape from the tension. The Fowlers' misery (which slowly becomes ours) is inescapable. Through the blank stares of anguish, they see Richard everywhere -- on the seafood trucks that bear the Strout name, in the streets he strides as though he owns them (because his family does, more or less), even in the lit windows of the cannery that now seems to taunt them. Only adding fuel to their misery is the fact Strout likely will walk for the crime; he might get a few years, but the district attorney can't guarantee even that. The gunshot turns into that worst kind of festering wound, a gnawing ache that builds slowly into an anger that, at last, gives way to rationalized acts of madness. If Dubus' work always resembled some sort of literary therapy session, as has often been said, then Field's version requires grief counseling. It is, at times, that devastating.