The Rhythms of Real Life
In the Bedroom opens with a pastoral sweetness, an introduction to young lovers Natalie Strout and Frank Fowler that convinces the audience that the film’s title refers to the urgent passion of a romance in its early stages, a romance sheltered and nourished by the simplicity of life in a New England fishing village: the early morning drives to the dock to begin the day’s work, the weekend barbecues on the lawn, the swingset in the backyard. This will be a corn-on-the-cob love story, a Hallmark card bought at Walmart.
But it isn’t. “In the bedroom” alludes not to the passion of the young but the unspoken understanding between lovers of long standing. Matt and Ruth Fowler (Tom Wilkinson: The Patriot and Sissy Spacek: Affliction) are college-age Frank’s (Nick Stahl: The Thin Red Line) parents, and they’re not exactly thrilled that he’s spending his summer with Natalie (Marisa Tomei: Happy Accidents), a good decade older than him, divorced, with two little boys. The Fowlers worry about everyone getting hurt, especially the kids, who quickly attached themselves to Frank. And they don’t like one bit the way her ex, Richard (William Mapother: Mission: Impossible 2), keeps coming around.
Directed by actor Todd Field (The Haunting), in a remarkably assured feature film debut, In the Bedroom starts out a finely drawn family drama and builds with a menace so subtle that you almost don’t notice it until violence strikes as it does in real life: suddenly, shockingly, and completely unexpectedly, even though, in retrospect, the signs that it was imminent are all there. So spare and true to the rhythms of life is this film that its sudden turns leave you as shell-shocked as genuine tragedy might — it seems belittling to call In the Bedroom a mere thriller, to suggest that it has to resort to movie trickery to grab you and rivet you to your seat. Small, personal, and human throughout, this almost uncomfortably raw film stabs you in the heart with emotion, but it’s not sentimental, and it’s not a tearjerker. It takes you to a hard place beyond tears, into the awkward situation tragedy puts one in, of the victims having to comfort friends who don’t know how to act around them, into the reminders everywhere of what was lost.
Wilkinson and Spacek so ably inhabit the Fowlers, their journey through emotional disaster, and all the things that go unsaid in a marriage that see them through it, that you almost feel as if you shouldn’t be watching at times. But it’s impossible not to. Field, with his even-keeled, unmanipulative direction, let’s his story speak for itself, and it’s so powerful that we can see how the normality of something like a baseball game on the car radio will be perverted into a recurring admonition for the rest of one’s life of very bad things that have been done. By the time we come around to the silent, disquieting predawn car trip that echoes the happy one at the start of the film, you’ll feel as rocked as the characters do, as if your world will never be the same again.