Thursday, June 12, 2014

A Time to Mourn

Film: In the Bedroom
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on laptop.

In one of the early scenes of In the Bedroom, Frank Fowler (Nick Stahl) and his father Matt (Tom Wilkinson) are out on a lobster boat off the coast of Maine with the son of Frank’s girlfriend. One of the lobsters they pull up on deck is missing a claw, and Matt explains to the boy that it lost it fighting over a female. One of the reasons that the traps need to be pulled up frequently is that if there are two males and a female in a trap, the males will fight, and one will likely lose a claw in the struggle. If you think that’s going to be a metaphor for the film that is to come, you’d be right.

Of course, that is exactly where we’re going. Frank’s girlfriend Natalie (Marisa Tomei) is older than he is by a few years, has two kids, and most important for the plot, has a violent, abusive, and extremely jealous ex-husband named Richard (William Mapother). For Frank, the relationship with Natalie starts as sort of a summer thing while he’s back home and preparing to go back to college. However, it slowly becomes more serious as things progress to the point where Frank considers delaying his return to college or even giving it up to be a lobster fisherman full time.

Frank clashes with his parents over Natalie as well, or at least with his mother Ruth (Sissy Spacek). She’s worried that things are becoming too serious and she’s also worried about Natalie’s reputation around town. When Frank comes home one night with stitches, she’s ready to put an end to the whole thing, something that neither Frank nor Natalie are willing to do. So it comes as a real shock not too long into the film when Richard shoots Frank in the face, which is what gets us to what the film is really about here. This isn’t much of a spoiler, by the way. There’s a good 90 minutes left in the film when this happens.

So what is this really about if it’s not about abusive men, relationships with older women, or shooting Nick Stahl in the face? Good question. In large part, it’s about grief. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of a film like The Sweet Hereafter, simply more focused on the grief of a single family. Matt goes back into his life as quickly as he can, striving for normalcy. Ruth becomes introverted. This difference in dealing with their grief affects the pair’s relationship, leading both to conflict and an eventual reconciliation.

There’s also revenge element to the film that comes from Richard’s being out on bail and suddenly around town where he can be seen by both Matt and Ruth. This is handled in the third act of the film with a sort of cold, emotionless efficiency that works extremely well with everything else that has happened in the film, even if it doesn’t work as well as it might. That said, the fact that it’s done coldly, almost rationally, is what makes it work as well as it does.

So let’s talk performances here, since it’s the key to the whole film far more than the story itself. Three of the performances here were nominated for Oscars, and I could possibly make a case for a fourth. Poor Nick Stahl isn’t in the film long enough, but I tend to like Nick Stahl, and he’s good here. His job is more or less to be a nice guy, and he does it well enough. William Mapother sneaked through without a nomination, and I think I might argue for him. It’s thankless to play this type of bastard and he’s great in the role.

Of course it’s Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson who command the attention for their performances here, and I’d be hard pressed to say they didn’t deserve the acclaim. These are difficult roles, and both of them are completely natural. It helps that both of them are almost always good at any role they are given and these are right in their emotional wheelhouse. Wilkinson has the ability to play world-weary and simultaneously emotionally exhausted and putting on a brave face. Spacek, for her part, is a woman with her heart ripped out so well it feels real.

Marisa Tomei is worth a special mention here. Years ago, when she won an Oscar for My Cousin Vinny, people were outraged, thinking she didn’t deserve it. There was even a rumor that the only reason she won was because Jack Palance read the wrong name. That’s not the case. As her career has progressed, Tomei has become an excellent actress, one I’m always happy to see in a film. People can complain about her win in 1992, but there’s no question she earned this nomination.

In the Bedroom is a surprisingly effective film. Much of this comes from the way scenes end and how little is seen in places. We’re spared many of the most emotional and terrible moments of the film, left to imagine them for ourselves. When Frank is killed, we see only the start of the phone call to Matt, and only Matt waiting for Ruth to tell her. It’s effective because we can imagine the scenes and know how they happen, and what we imagine is more (and in fact felt more) because we don’t see them.

This is another film I’d probably never have picked on my own, but I’m pleased I got the chance to see it.

Why to watch In the Bedroom: If you want great acting performances, this is the film for you.
Why not to watch: The final resolution may be hard to take with these characters.


  1. Great review my friend, so happy to hear that you liked this one. In the Bedroom is one of my favorite films from the 2000s and has been a great inspiration on my own fillmaking. I love how you pointed out that we are spared those terrible moments. Much of the beauty of the film is what it chooses not to show. And that central argument between Matt and Ruth still haunts me. So expertly done.

    1. That fight, to me, is the key scene, and just as it gets to a point where we almost can't take it, it's beautifully broken up, which brings us back to reality.

      I really didn't know what to expect with this, but it's films like this that make me glad I've taken on this additional project.

  2. A someone from Maine I can tell you that the geography in the film makes zero sense, in regards to where the events take place and where people travel from/to for them. Obviously, that's not a problem for most people who watch it.

    Apparently the hand-operated bridge is real, but even I had never heard of it before seeing this film. It definitely doesn't connect to anything like what's in the movie. I'm guessing someone on the film crew saw it while scouting locations and couldn't resist putting it in the movie.

    For a really good Mapother performance check out Another Earth sometime (if you haven't already). It's a lesser known gem from 2011. I had it in my Top 10 for the year. The key thing to know before seeing it is that it's not really a science fiction film, despite the title and premise. It's more about second chances, with the "other Earth" as one of movie history's biggest metaphors.

    1. Yeah, I don't know the geography at all. I try not to let that bother me too much even if I do. There are enough films made in Chicago that get the geography wrong that I can either get bent out of shape about it or let it slide. It's better for my blood pressure to let it slide.