2001

Film #436: In the Bedroom (2001)

Continuing our exploration of American suburbia we have another film that explores family issues in the modern day. However, unlike the Burnhams of American Beauty, the Fowlers in In the Bedroom are initially a well-adjusted happy clan who live a comfortable existence in the small town of Camden, Maine.


Father Matt is the town’s GP whilst Ruth teaches singing at the local school, meanwhile their son Frank is training to be an architect. The Fowlers lives are full of poker games, barbecues and trips to luxurious cabins; however everything changes when Frank starts to date the much older Natalie Strout. Natalie doesn’t come alone; as she has two young sons as well as an abusive ex-husband who turns up every now and then expecting to reunite with her at some point. It’s Natalie’s ex-husband Richard who changes the course of the film when he storms the family home and shoots Frank dead. From then on the film explores the theme of grief with both Ruth and Matt dealing with the incident in different ways. Matt tries to put a brave face on things and attempts to return to work however it’s later made clear that he isn’t coping as well as he should. Meanwhile Ruth becomes a lot more withdrawn and it takes it a while to go back to the school to train her choir for the upcoming Labour Day concert. Director Todd Field and co-writer Robert Festinger; who based their script on Andre Dubus’ short story Killings, perfectly pace the first two thirds of their story. I felt that Ruth and Matt’s ultimate argument occurred at the right time with both throwing the finger of blame at each other. Where the film lost me was in its final act, where Matt finally attempts to extract vengeance for his son’s death. These final scenes felt out of place with what had happened up to this point however I felt that Field and Festinger pulled it back with a rather open-ended final scene.

Something that was great throughout the course of In The Bedroom were the performances given by Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson as Ruth and Matt. One great thing about doing this challenge is watching the entire span of an actor’s career and that’s what I feel I’ve done with Sissy Spacek. From her idealistic roles in Coal Miner’s Daughter and Missing, In the Bedroom sees her deal with much more of a down-to-Earth matriarch. However, Spacek’s outstanding ability is demonstrated here as she is able to say so much with a sudden glance or the smoking of a cigarette. The grief that Ruth feels is conveyed brilliantly by Spacek especially in an almost inconsequential scene at a log cabin where she chats with an old friend. It’s also great to see Tom Wilkinson graduate from British films to playing the lead in an American production where he’s able to showcase his extraordinary skills. Wilkinson brings a charm to the character of Matt however I didn’t believe his descent into darkness in the aforementioned final scenes.
Both Wilkinson and Spacek were nominated for Oscars for their performances as was Marisa Tomei for her turn as the tortured Natalie. As a big fan of Tomei’s I was upset when she had little to do following Frank’s death although her earlier scenes were more than enough to put her in the Supporting Actress category. Antonio Calvache’s cinematography was perfect as he sometimes focused on a specific part of a character’s body rather than their facial features. This often gave the character’s more depth and allowed us to see through the eyes of Ruth and Matt. Also worth a mention is the haunting music that Ruth is teaching her choir for the concert; this music is added to several of the film’s pivotal scenes which gives them a certain eerie edge. It’s a shame that In the Bedroom isn’t as well remembered as American Beauty because in my opinion it’s the superior product. Despite a wonky third act; In the Bedroom is still a brilliant piece of film-making that explores what happens when a shocking incident affects a seemingly normal suburban family.

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