Sunday, December 13, 2015

In the Bedroom (2001)

Director: Todd Field                                      Writers: Todd Field & Robert Festinger
Film Score: Thomas Newman                      Cinematography: Antonio Calvache
Starring: Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek, Marisa Tomei and Nick Stahl

This is an absolutely fascinating family drama that is a throwback to films of the seventies. In the Bedroom is not concerned at all with pandering to modern audiences’ need for speed, but instead takes its time and tells its story in the way that it naturally unfolds. At the same time it honors New England novels as far back as Ethan Frome in the way that its characters are allowed their natural stoicism and doesn’t force them into exaggerated emotions and outbursts that have become incredibly tedious in most modern dramas. The film is based on the short story “Killings” by New England author Andre Dubus, and writer-director Todd Field and his screenwriting partner Robert Festinger stayed true to the spirit of the source material in the best possible way, earning an Oscar nomination for their efforts. The film was similarly nominated for best picture and the three leads were nominated as well, though none of them took home the prize. This is surprising considering it was a fairly weak field in all the major categories that year. Todd Field was born in Portland, Oregon, but moved to New York to study acting and had a substantial career in secondary roles in both film and television while at the same time honing his skills as a director making short films. In the Bedroom is all the more impressive for being his first feature.

The film opens on Marisa Tomei and Nick Stahl running through a field, then lying down in the grass to kiss as she professes her love for him. The next day, early in the morning, what appears to be the couple’s oldest boy goes out with Stahl and his father, Tom Wilkinson, to pull up his lobster pots. It’s not until the boy’s birthday party that the audience discovers the two boys are from Tomei’s marriage to William Mapother. Wilkinson is a doctor in the small Maine fishing town, and he’s married to Sissy Spacek, a high school choir teacher. It is the summer before Stahl is set to go off to graduate school for architecture but he’s having second thoughts, wanting to stay with the older Tomei for a year before he goes back to school. Mapother is a typically abusive husband, whose father owns the fish packing plant in town and clearly he’s been given everything he wants in life. The fact that Tomei doesn’t want him anymore is infuriating to him, not to mention her relationship with Stahl. Spacek wants Stahl to break it off with Tomei, especially after he gets into a fight with Mapother, but the more Tomei falls victim to his abuse, the more Stahl thinks about staying. Finally, everything becomes moot when Mapother shoots Stahl and kills him. The rest of the film deals with the trauma unleashed by the event, and especially the way Stahl’s parents attempt to cope with the death of their son.

In some ways this can be seen as a modern update of Ordinary People, with a slightly more blue-collar slant and from the parent’s perspective rather than the brother. Wilkinson isn’t quite as cuckold as Donald Sutherland, and Spacek isn’t quite the frigid witch that Mary Tyler Moore is, but there’s a similar dynamic going on between them. Everything about the last half of the film is masterfully done. The story, while familiar, never edges over into cliché, and the surprising realism in the confrontation of the grieving couple toward the end virtually dares the audience not to believe it. Both Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek were nominated for Oscars, and deservedly so. Marisa Tomei, though not nearly as believable as those two, does a solid job and earned a nomination as well. The other thing the film does so brilliantly is to deliberately keep the camera away from the violence. The audience hears about Mapother’s abuses, sees Stahl’s black eye, sees the aftermath of Mapother’s trashing of the house, and is even with Tomei on the stairs instead of in the room when Stahl is shot. The result is to put the viewer on the side of the parents as they struggle with Stahl’s death. Rather than the easy hatred toward a similar character in something like The Rainmaker, the audience is left to reason its way through the second half of the film rather than instinctively react emotionally, which is what most Hollywood films would devolve into. As a result, the ending is so much more powerful for the simultaneous resolution it gives and future emotional uncertainty that it promises.

Todd Field seems equally adept behind the camera as his is with the screenplay. The film is shot in natural tones without artificial color manipulation, and as most of the story is set during the summer it has a vivid, colorful palate that plays nicely against the unfolding story. But the most impressive technical aspect of the film is easily the camera work by Field and his cinematographer Antonio Calvache. The camera angles are deceptively simple, which means that while they don’t draw attention to themselves, there are actually quite unique in almost every scene, especially in the way that the two utilize depth of field to frame both subjects in the foreground and background rather than relying on lateral interaction on the screen. It’s some of the best camerawork in modern filmmaking I’ve seen. There are also a couple of spots where Field makes his talent more obvious. After Stahl’s death Wilkinson goes to visit Tomei at her job in a convenience store and the sound is pushed up on the register with makes for a nice aural intrusion into their conversation. He also visits with his lawyer and the camera pushes in on the lawyer’s mouth, while muddling the sound, as the camera shifts to Wilkinson’s eyes, then to the lawyer’s pocket where he jingles his change, again with an increase in volume. The cliché of the lawyer as a mouthpiece only interested in money rather than justice could not be more obvious and yet it is delightfully rendered. In the Bedroom is easily one of the best pictures made in the last twenty years and yet seems criminally neglected. It should be on everyone’s must see list.

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