Separate ’Bedrooms’: a masterful dissection of relationships

The opening scenes of director Todd Field’s “In The Bedroom” present the audience with the Fowlers, a happily well-adjusted, upper middle-class family that is already feeling faint tremors from the emotional earthquake that will soon tear it apart.

Frank Fowler (Nick Stahl) is a young man spending his summer break from Yale at home in coastal Maine. Frank’s relationship with Natalie Strout (Marisa Tomei), a stunning older woman with two young sons, catches the attention of her ex-husband. Richard Strout (Williams Mapother) is one of those menacingly familiar small-town types too dangerous and stupid not to take seriously.

Frank’s parents, played beautifully by Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek, take different attitudes toward their son’s affair. Frank’s father, Matt Fowler, is the big-hearted town doctor whose love for his son manifests itself in his trust in him, and who clearly finds some vicarious joy in his son’s sexual adventures.

Ruth Fowler, Frank’s mother, feigns an icy indifference to her son’s affair that cannot conceal her deep reservations. From early in the movie, the audience can sense that the Fowlers’ marriage is one of unvoiced regret, held together not by communication but by devotion to their son.

Frank’s death – roughly a third of the way into the movie, at the hand of Natalie’s ex-husband Richard – is a shocking moment, rendered all the more meaningless by the fact that the audience is not sure whether that death is a murder or a tragic accident. Field does a superb job handling the quiet moments immediately following Frank’s death: the uncertainty of family friends trying to comfort Matt and Ruth, the laughter of children at the funeral reception, the murmur of the wind blowing though the long grass and trees, the slips of the tongue that bring out into the open what everybody has been trying not to say.

The unspoken regret and sadness between Ruth and Matt finally builds up in the wake of their son’s death, erupting in a sudden burst of anger and grief, a no-holds-barred confrontation in which each blames the other for Frank’s death. The acting of Spacek and Wilkinson in the second hour of the film is simply astonishing. The strength of their performances lies not in what they say when they speak, but in the silences after they trail off.

Finally Matt trumps his wife, using his son’s words against her. “Frank said you were unforgiving. Frank said that,” Matt tells her, if only because it is the cruelest thing he can think to say to her.

The final section follows Matt as he attempts to exact some sort of justice on the man he knows to have killed his son. This final section falters, if only because it draws the focus away from the emotional core of the film – the Fowlers’ marriage.

“In The Bedroom” is a movie about relationships; the film unfolds through its dialogue, revealing personalities in a series of scenes that are each shared by only two characters. We get to know Frank, Matt, Ruth and Natalie only through their relationships with each other. We also get to see how changes in relationships between family members ripple outward, changing the entire dynamic of the family. Matt’s permissive friendship with his son necessarily weakens Frank’s relationship with his mother. What love the Fowlers have for their only son costs them their marriage, unraveling the bonds between husband and wife.

Visually, the movie conveys the stillness and quietude of the small town and the casual grace of life there. The carefully-composed frames often glow with a faint crepuscular light and the images breathe with subtle breezes in open spaces. We can almost feel the light wind off the ocean and the misty spray of the ocean on Frank’s lobster boat.

It is the acting that gives this movie its power, and that brings it into the territory of a masterpiece. Wilkinson, a British actor, pulls off the role of Matt Fowler brilliantly. A massive man with a large, sad, sunken face, Matt seems to age fifteen years over the course of a few months. His large physique betrays all of his character’s frailties and uncertainties, and in the film’s final scene this makes him appear surprisingly fragile.

Spacek is equally astonishing in the role of Ruth. Unsympathetic compared to her husband, Spacek powerfully conveys the difficulties of her role as the “unpopular,” strictly disciplinarian parent. After Frank’s death, Natalie visits Ruth at work to offer her apologies. Ruth stares at her for a few seconds, slaps her across the mouth, and coolly turns back to her work. Both actresses deliver truly amazing performances in this scene. Spacek portrays particularly well Ruth’s painful inability to forgive herself and others.

“In The Bedroom” is an intensely sad movie that manages to be eloquent through its silences. The resentments, regrets, anxieties, hopes and loves of its characters are spread across class lines, gender lines and generational lines. The silences of its characters in addressing these things point in the direction of the audience, and a culture perhaps increasingly reluctant to articulate its inner fears and regrets. The film suggests that with family and loved ones, it is the silence itself – the pauses between your words, the rest between this heartbeat and your last – that you will ultimately learn to regret most of all.