#40 — In the Bedroom (Todd Field, 2001)
There is an argument. Between a man and a woman, a husband and wife. It is fueled by their grief, their lingering shock after a tragic loss in the family. They fight about the series of choices, decisions, guidance given and withheld that led to the violence which was shocking and yet entirely predictable. The fight about that, that immediate moment, that emotional bruise that will not heal, will never heal. And in the anger, the seething recriminations, there is the weight of a lifetime of unspoken words coming to the surface, words held back and now refashioned as weapons. Then there is someone at the door. Perhaps another figure in their grueling play, someone who will change the dynamic, ratcheting up the intensity or soothing the animosity. Instead, it is a complete outsider, oblivious to their tragedy. It is a child, a girl going door to door, selling candy bars. For a moment the drama stops as the husband quietly and politely makes a purchase, helping this girl in her fundraising. No matter how devastating a moment may be for those who are in it, the outside world continues moving unimpeded and sometimes its path will trundle through. Life intrudes.
That passage exemplifies the strength of Todd Field’s feature directorial debut, In the Bedroom. Based on an Andre Dubus short story, the film bears a plot that invites heaving melodrama. There are plentiful examples of other films that tread similar ground, and wind up unbearably portentous. That is not the case here. The film is still undeniably heavy and grave, largely unleavened by any sort of levity or even hope. It is grim and bereft. However, it avoids becoming merely manipulative, largely due to the attention to detail. Every frame of the film feels real, often painfully so. This is because of the intricate examination of the people who move through it, and the heartfelt performances of every actor onscreen. But is also because of that uncommon reminder of the ceaseless progression of the world outside of our pain. We’re so used to seeing films where characters are the center of the story, to the exclusion of any reminders that anything exists apart from their reactions, their incidents, their devastation. But that, of course, is not the way the world really works. Life isn’t a series of plot points. It is a vast, continuous process. It doesn’t pause because of a loss, or shift into overdrive because of a crime. Intense moments don’t eliminate the quiet moments. They coexist, sometimes side-by-side, and sometimes simultaneously. Film directors don’t often have the patience to consider this truth. Todd Field does.
Before Bedroom, Field had a reasonably productive career as an actor. As is often the case when someone follows that particular career trajectory, he is especially generous to those he casts in the film. Everyone has room to build their characters, time to dig for the deepest truths they can find in their roles. Any number of hard dramas allow for the actors to play scenes of riveting anguish. Far fewer will slow down enough to show a choir teacher enjoying a satisfying practice by her students, smiling kindly as the final note softly fades. It is a mistake to bypass these details, because the quiet pride taken in that moment tells us something about the character that brings more meaning and feeling to scenes that follow. Sissy Spacek plays it with great care, and as much conviction as she brings to the bigger, bolder scenes. She is bringing us the totality of the character, knowing full well that each bit of her–the rigidity, the fragility, the nurturing instincts–informs the whole. That is also how Tom Wilkinson plays his role, and Marisa Tomei plays her role, and Nick Stahl plays his role. They’re not marking time between showcase scenes. They’re filling these people, feeling these lives.
It’s a delicate thing, a movie like this. There are so many ways it can go wrong, and the narrative routes that are easiest to follow are also those most likely to doom the film to maudlin redundancy. The mere details of this film’s story, blandly recited, are wrenching enough. The film can take care of itself, in a way. The story can filmed plainly and cautiously, sticking to the surface and still stir emotions in the viewer, human instinct trumping cynicism. This is an understandable approach. Todd Field does something different, something more. He never stops plumbing this story, these people onscreen. He wants to understand them. It almost seems that he wants to honor them through unflinching, fully attentive storytelling. That may not be his goal, but it is certainly his achievement.
(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)