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In the Bedroom

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2001 1 Jan
  • COMMENTS
In the Bedroom
from Film Forum, 12/13/01

Similarly, In the Bedroom is gaining impressive kudos from almost all sides, but a few religious-press critics are nevertheless disgruntled. The story follows a family that suffers a sudden and grievous loss, and as a husband and wife hold their marriage together in the aftermath their pain slowly turns to hardened, vengeful intent.

The USCC critic praises director Todd Field, whose "accomplished directorial debut is subtly intense and deliberately paced," and applauds "exceptional performances from the ensemble cast."

Tom Snyder (Movieguide) disagrees. "The first two-thirds of [the film] are one of the best-acted, most rewarding family dramas of the year. The final third of the movie, however, rejects forgiveness, redemption and true justice in favor of revenge and a confused, unintelligible warning about controlling mothers."

Mainstream critics are hailing the film as deserving of Oscar nominations, especially for the performances. "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," writes Flick Filosopher MaryAnn Johanson. "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. [Tom] Wilkinson and [Sissy] Spacek so ably inhabit the Fowlers, their journey through emotional disaster, and all the things that go unsaid in a marriage … that you almost feel as if you shouldn't be watching at times. But it's impossible not to … you'll feel as rocked as the characters do, as if your world will never be the same again."

from Film Forum, 01/10/02

A few weeks ago, two religious media critics posted early reactions to In the Bedroom, an acclaimed art-house picture from actor-turned-director Todd Field. But now that the film is in wider release, and accumulating awards and nominations left and right, other critics are writing in about this artful and troubling drama.

The title might suggest that the film is about sex, but it's actually about a marriage. Matt and Ruth Fowler's brief but barbed exchanges have remarkable realism; they're not often contentious, but they're not very communicative with each other either. During times of stress you can see the hairline fractures in their relationship. This is especially true when they discuss their son's love life.

When tragedy strikes, cracks in the foundation spread and broaden. (I'm being carefully vague to avoid spoiling surprises.) Matt and Ruth grope for comfort and consolation, but friends and legal advisors fail them. A great injustice looks like it will remain an irresolvable problem in their lives. Matt (Tom Wilkinson of The Patriot in an astonishing performance) keeps his grief turned inward, nagging his lawyers to get things done. Ruth (the great Sissy Spacek) shouts, complains, and weeps, her rage intensified by her husband's stony silence.

Nowhere is the toll taken on their marriage clearer than "in the bedroom," where conversations end in uncomfortable scowls. We also learn that the "bedroom" is the innermost part of a lobster trap. Matt, whose family carries on a tradition of lobster catching, explains that lobsters in traps can become so tightly packed together that they hurt each other. We're treated to realistic footage of the actors reeling in lobsters, many of whom have clawed each other's limbs off in attempts to survive. A lovely metaphor for marriage, isn't it? Will Matt and Ruth destroy each other as they fail to mourn cooperatively?

J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) praises the acting as "a tour de force." And he finds the exploration timely: "Watching movies like this, which focus on loss and grief, in the wake of Sept. 11, it's hard not to think about the thousands of people who've been thrust into a similar situation. How are they dealing with a life that takes a dramatically unfortunate turn? In the Bedroom offers no easy answers, which is one of the reasons why it rings true. I suspect many will find it a source of comfort and strength in these times."

Doug Cummings writes that the film is "lovingly constructed, beautifully photographed, and carefully acted." But he is disappointed in its final act: "It finds itself irretrievably pulled toward its generic 'criminal justice' plot rather than focusing on its characters or any overarching perspectives of emotional suffering and healing. The first 85 percent was a well-observed drama, but the last act collapsed in the worst way I could have imagined."

Similarly, Peter T. Chattaway (B.C. Christian News, Books and Culture) wrote at the OnFilm discussion list that the film's violent finale was a stumbling point: "Field did such a good job of making a movie about the grieving process … and made such effective use of a style that avoided direct depictions of violence, that the final half-hour felt like it was a whole different movie."

Mainstream critics are moved by the film's dramatic intensity, but also by its implications. David Denby (The New Yorker) says the film "draws its strength from minute observation of settings, moods, and manners in Camden and from a gradual tightening of the winch. Much of it is very quiet, but when it explodes, the violence, both verbal and physical, actually means something."

Andrew O'Hehir (Salon.com) finds that the film honors the ideas of Andre Dubus, the writer and moral philosopher whose short story Killings was the inspiration for the film: "It captures Dubus' fascination with the nature of justice, and in fact with its impossibility. It's also a study of how amazingly painful life can become when its ordinariness, its tiny, protective hypocrisies, are stripped away. It captures Dubus' conviction that our contemporary clichÉs about healing are empty."

Like Cummings and Chattaway, I also felt the film lost its sensitive touch in the last act. The ending seemed abrupt and the film's exploration of justice and healthy relationships felt incomplete. But days later, I am still haunted by it. As I watched the film, I focused on its tragic and violent turns. Now I am wondering if the specifics of the tragedy are perhaps unimportant. The real story is in how the marriage is strengthened or harmed by each spouse responds to what's happening. If this particular tragedy hadn't occurred, surely something else would, and the marriage would have been tested in the end. I've been having better conversations with my wife all week. This film has exhorted me to vigilance.

The film also demonstrates how our built-in sense of human "justice" can lead to empty and unsatisfying resolutions in the real world. In most movies, it is the proper duty of heroes to respond to violence with violence. Here, justice through violence may eliminate an immediate problem, but there's now a new and perhaps more troubling problem in its place. The last few images of the film will drive this point home. The justice and peace Matt and Ruth desire probably cannot be found on this earth, in this lifetime. And unfortunately, this story offers Matt and Ruth no source of consolation. In the Bedroom raises all the right questions and points to love by effectively portraying its absence.


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