In the Thrall

In the Bedroom is the most quietly devastating movie of the year.

Shortly after Sept. 11, Slate’s Robert Wright posed vital questions about the human desire for retaliation. Is it natural? Is it inherent? More important: Is it adaptive? Does it perpetuate the species or hasten its destruction? I’ve been troubled by such questions since I became a movie critic and found myself reckoning with a ceaseless stream of vigilante pictures, most of which exploit modern anxieties in ways that only reinforce them—along with a conviction that the right of vengeance is key to Americans’ manifest destiny. Among the reasons to be grateful for In the Bedroom (Miramax Films) is that it reimagines a familiar scenario in a subtly different context. The movie is anchored in a persistent dread: of what might happen to our loved ones if we’re too vigilant, and of what might happen to them if we’re not vigilant enough. It’s about living in a society in which our survival instincts have been muted even as the laws of nature continue, inexorably, to operate. The tension is unresolvable, which is why this is a genuine modern tragedy.

It’s also the best movie of the last several years: the most evocative, the most mysterious, the most inconsolably devastating. It marks the return of a major American actress (Sissy Spacek, in her greatest performance—yes, even better than in Carrie [1976] and CoalMiner’s Daughter [1980]) and the arrival of a major American screenwriter, Robert Festinger, and director, Todd Field. Known best as an actor (he was the ill-fated pianist in Eyes Wide Shut [1999]), Field works without flash, but his images have a mythic power. The first few shots establish both the mood and the central theme: A beautiful, bare-legged young woman (Marisa Tomei) runs through waving tall grass; a beautiful boy (Nick Stahl) kisses her passionately on the ground; across town, the boy’s father (Tom Wilkinson) watches that same breeze rustle the leaves outside his window, and he smiles

Wilkinson is Matt Fowler, a small-town Maine doctor with an easygoing faith in civilization that runs counter to his knowledge of the natural world. As a part-time lobsterman (it was his dad’s boat), he knows what happens when, say, two males are caught in a trap with a female; but that same knowledge isn’t fully engaged when the estranged husband of his son’s girlfriend begins to lurk in the vicinity. He tells his wife, Ruth (Sissy Spacek), that he’ll think about phoning the police—he’ll sleep on it.

In part, Fowler is trying to function as a counterweight. Ruth can’t stand the way her only son, Frank (Stahl), is letting this older woman—uneducated, reportedly promiscuous, with two children—interfere with his education: Her boy, a talented architect, should be in Boston, she maintains, in school. But Ruth’s cold, seething attempts to break up the relationship—to interfere with something as natural as the wind—only drive Frank away from her. Fowler agrees with his wife that their son should be in Boston—but he doesn’t mind the woman, either; he can see that she’s a dish; and he never had anything like her in his youth. And the estranged husband—well, that will blow over, we’re all grown-ups here. His middle ground seems to him the most stable spot.

It might seem that way to us, too, if we didn’t sense from the start what was coming; and if we didn’t see the predatory instincts in the eyes of Richard Strout (William Mapother) as he watches his wife and children with another man. I’ve never seen Mapother—but I recognize his Strout from my unconscious. He has a soft, babyish face with a cleft chin and hooked nose; his visage signals both his childish sense of entitlement and his capacity for violence. He plays with his boys like a gorilla, poking them, attempting to awaken the fight in them. He’s so primal that you almost pity him, later, when he tries to explain his actions to Fowler—”He was making it with my wife“—as if reaching out to a fellow dominant male instead of a father.

The script of In the Bedroom, by Festinger and Field, is based on “Killings,” a short story by the late Andre Dubus (senior). It’s no slur on Dubus’ work (which is masterful) to say that the movie is deeper and richer—that it does full justice to Dubus’ themes and adds a philosophical tug of war of its own. Festinger and Field have made the Fowlers slightly higher-class than their Maine co-workers and friends. Matt is physically at home in this world but too gentle and inhibited to enter into it fully; and Wilkinson’s tentativeness and slight effeminacy are marvelously expressive. Ruth is a former professor who doesn’t want her son to be trapped in this cultural backwater the way she is—and who fears that, with his talent, intellect, and sensitivity, he’s not equipped to survive in it. She conducts a local singing group in Eastern European choral music, and those hymns give the film a primordial current, as well capturing her own, otherworldly mixture of longing and rage.

Spacek conducts that chorus with a face that’s like something out of Greek tragedy—an archetypal mask that can absorb and reflect all the anger and sorrow in the world. Her face is broader now and less reptilian, but there’s nothing soft about her presence; her Ruth maintains such an inner simmer that telekinesis would seem a healthy way of letting off steam. Spacek’s most electrifying moment has a telekinetic charge: It comes when Tomei’s Natalie pays her a tremulous visit as she crouches over a table, listening on headphones to her Eastern European requiems. It’s wordless, and no words of mine can do justice to its power (or to Tomei, who is reborn in this movie too—simple again, elemental, without that neurotic fussiness).

The entire middle section of In the Bedroom has little in the way of meaningful talk—and that’s the point. Words could temper nothing, relieve nothing. The language is in the images, in the progression of shots during a funeral, in the breeze (an echo of the earliest motif) that makes a lace curtain billow, in the aura of futility that surrounds household chores, in the chatter of a television in the abyss. During the last hour, I could barely breathe; I swore at the screen; I called for blood; I cried for vigilantism to restore the natural order; and I sat in shock when the natural order was and wasn’t restored. That’s the thing about a masterpiece like In the Bedroom. It isn’t over when you leave the theater. It isn’t over when you brood on it for days. It’s just always going to be there, in the air, in the bedroom.