Separate ‘Bedrooms’: beautiful but disappointing

“In the Bedroom,” while garnering eight Academy Award nominations and rave reviews across the board for its acting and script, bores an audience yearning for more than well-placed silence and awesome (but silent) beauty.My greatest criticism lies in my immediate notion that it wasn’t particularly well-directed – a notion reflected in the conspicuous absence of an Oscar nod for first-timer Todd Field’s direction. Rob Festinger and Field’s collaboration on the script retains the intensity of the short story from which the screenplay is adapted, but is cut by what feels like hours of art shots and montage, rendering what could be cutting merely ambiguous.

The film opens with a cliched long shot of Frank Fowler (Nick Stahl) and his single-mother girlfriend Natalie Strout (Marisa Tomei) running through a golden field in Maine and passionately embracing in the tall grasses. The nostalgia and innocent laziness of a summer home from college is well conveyed by this scene and the next, a backyard barbeque attended by young children and old friends. Matt Fowler (tenderly but solidly performed by Tom Wilkinson) works the grill and smiles at the jokes cracked by his best friend Willis (William Wise) about his son’s girlfriend’s nubile body.

It is immediately perceptible how strongly Ruth Fowler (Sissy Spacek, yet again typecast as an intelligent neurotic) disapproves of Frank and Natalie’s relationship, expressing her contempt passive-agressively in prying and aloof questions.

The audience is quickly oriented to the diegetic world: Richard Strout (William Mapother), Natalie’s abusive but soon-to-be-ex husband, is determined to stay linked to his two children by intruding on Natalie’s life – which makes Frank and Natalie’s romance a little more difficult. Additionally, Matt and Ruth’s divergent opinions about the propriety of the relationship complicate matters, and leave Frank to choose between his lenient buddy-buddy father and strict, cold mother.

After an off-screen fistfight between Richard and Frank, Ruth becomes frantically concerned and wants to involve the police while Matt tries to keep the mood light by asking if Frank “got a few punches in.” Frank, eager to appeal to maturity, makes the decision not to press charges for fear of upsetting Natalie’s two boys, who adore and admire their mother’s boyfriend seemingly more than their intimidating father.

Not long into the story, an inevitable final confrontation after Richard terrorizes his estranged wife leaves Frank dead and the two parents emotionally catatonic. Instead of letting their grief unite them, their impenetrable solitude and desire for justice (unsated due to a courtroom technicality which Ruth subsequently blames on Natalie) rip them apart at the seams. The division is apparent from the first minute: at the funeral reception, when Matt goes upstairs to check on Ruth, she lies motionless and barely breathing, turned away from her husband. The bed and nightstand next to her are littered with crumpled, pulpy tissues, and though the camera cannot see her face, the audience senses that she is not asleep but psychologically comatose.

Ruth refuses at first to go back to her job as a choral director, choosing instead to dwell on her pain. She chain-smokes on the couch and watches daytime television week after week; Matt goes back to his family physician practice so soon that Ruth questions whether he notices that their life has changed at all. Whereas she disguises her anger as apathy, he tries to move past the pain to reconnect with his memories of his son by setting lobster traps and reaching out to Natalie. He tries to encourage life to go on while hers has stopped short. The result: Ruth feels left behind – and stays seething.

When Natalie comes to apologize and offer her condolences to Ruth, who is at work transcribing music, Ruth is so unspeakably unforgiving that she removes her headphones only long enough to slap Natalie across the face so hard that the viewer finds it difficult not to wince. Once the force has been expended, Ruth returns to her work without a word and Natalie runs away. Few words are spoken over the course of this emotionally-charged scene, yet the power of this brief exchange expresses everything that has remained explosively unsaid between the two women, who seem rivals for the love of Frank.

Ultimately, Matt and Ruth are forced to speak about their grief and find that they cannot without throwing dishes and bellowing accusations. The heated rupture in their silence finally brings them together to clasp to one another and weep openly for their unspeakable loss. The scene lures the audience into a false sense of catharsis. It seems that the Fowlers have at last discovered an ability to rely on each other for comfort and strength, when later it becomes evident that they have come so far only to conspire together to bring about justice in their own way – a way which is more destructive to the marriage than any degree of silence.

The film runs significantly longer than two hours, but could easily be shortened by 45 minutes. Field has a propensity to include extended montage sequences of the harbor or forests for no certain purpose. This gratuitous, hyperrealistic imagery irritated the hell out of me. A shot of a young male deer is interjected at a key moment, unabashedly dripping with excessive symbolism. Superfluous dissolves and fades-to-black during transitions between scenes, coupled with the incorporation of a reflection motif in a disproportionate number of shots of glass and mirrors, similarly nauseate and ultimately distract from the script – which, next to the acting, is arguably the film’s strongest point.

Wilkinson’s acting is achingly sublime; the viewer’s empathy rests unwaveringly and unquestionably with Matt, the most human and kind-hearted character of the film. His quiet charms are understated but beautiful, his hulking form enclosing a bruised heart whose desire for healing is repeatedly rejected by his cold, shrewish wife. His dissolution of conscience at the end is the most tragic turn of the film, when the audience is shocked to feel that the gentle giant has betrayed his sense of honor and duty to his family.

Spacek seems a shoo-in for Best Actress at this year’s Oscars. She communicates the outraged quality of grief brilliantly, and while I largely disagree with her character’s method of coping, my exasperation with Ruth seems exactly what Spacek was striving for. Tomei shines in her single-mom role as well, though the age difference between the two actors playing the lovers (Tomei is 37, whereas Stahl is a young 22) for some reason wouldn’t go unnoticed. Neither of the women has won an Academy Award (nor has acted in anything that would legitimately qualify her for one) in at least ten years, and “In the Bedroom” gives both a very good shot at delivering teary-eyed acceptance speeches on Mar. 24.

The real strength of “In the Bedroom” lies in the actors’ interaction with each other and less with the cinematography, mistakenly made the focus. As beautiful as coastal Maine is in the summer, the focus could have remained on the principal actors for a more intensified effect on the viewer.

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