Bitter, my love

Desire and revenge in the mild but moody Northeast.

Set in the pleasingly placid environs of coastal Maine, In The Bedroom begins with a potentially volatile situation. Frank (Nick Stahl), a young college student, is having a summer fling with Natalie (Marisa Tomei), an older woman with two small children and an estranged husband, Richard (William Mapother). Frank is something of a golden boy; intelligent, good looking, kind and used to the attentions of women, while Natalie seems a little more intense, a little more needy. Frank’s father, Matt (Tom Wilkinson), a local doctor, views the affair benignly, while his mother, Ruth (Sissy Spacek), a music teacher, quietly disapproves.

The wild card in all this is Richard, who imagines that there could be some kind of reconciliation between him and his wife and whose mere appearance — the shock of dyed blond hair, the self-absorbed and disdaining demeanor — should set off alarms. He might as well be wearing a T-shirt saying “Sociopath: Beware.” This movie may be low-keyed, but it’s not necessarily subtle.

About 40 minutes into the story’s two hour-plus running time there occurs what some reviewers have referred to as a shocking plot twist. It’s not so much a twist — you can see it coming a mile away — as a turn which leads the movie into its main subject; the shifting nature of grief. Still, if you’re sensitive about knowing too much, it’s probably best that you read the rest of this review after you’ve seen the movie.

After much belligerent lurking about, Richard confronts Frank and kills him. The film then settles into being a somewhat attenuated but generally incisive study of post-traumatic emotional blight, specifically that of Frank’s parents. Encased in a sort of fragile numbness, their suffering is mitigated. Since no one actually witnessed the crime, Richard stands a good chance of getting off with a relatively light manslaughter sentence, and in any event is currently out on bail. Matt, encased in his temporary carapace of unfeeling, tries to be reasonable about the situation, but Ruth is totally freaked. Slowly the subject matter moves from suffering to revenge and to a predictable but still-unsettling climax.

In The Bedroom was directed and co-scripted by Todd Field, the young actor who played Nick Nightingale in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. Though the film is framed by two explicit acts of violence, its overall mood is one of careful stillness, of patient watching as Field creates spaces for his actors to register their difficult feelings. In this way it resembles another actor-directed film, Robert Redford’s Ordinary People, having a similar psychoanalytic mise-en-scène and emotional roominess.

Such a commanding sensitivity on the part of the director can become turgid if the actors being allowed all this tender exposure aren’t up to the occasion. While the film is not without its longueurs, Field has made fortuitous choices in his two leads. Tom Wilkinson, a dependable British character actor (The Full Monty, The Patriot) who “does” an American with that acuity the Brits are famous for, is excellent as an essentially decent man who both resents and is confused by the intrusion of loss into his life. Early in the film we’re led to believe that he’s a randy old bird — it’s the basis of his sympathy with his son’s affair — and it’s painful to watch his natural joie de vivre die along with his son. But the Spacek character falls even harder and much further, at first becoming nearly comatose in front of the TV and then, when shaken back to life, the engine of the couple’s revenge. After the two of them have clawed the air between them with impotent rage, Ruth’s grim determination to extract some sort of primal justice from a hopeless situation comes almost as a relief.

In The Bedroom is a finely calibrated if essentially conventional slice of suffering — there wasn’t a moment in the film when I wasn’t at least a few yards ahead of the story — but if there’s a neatness about its plot, one is still grateful for its basic seriousness. It’s a tragedy in the classic mode, where everybody’s fatal flaw is that they’re human.

Showing exclusively at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple, W of Telegraph). Call 248-542-0180.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].

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