Nothing beats a good short story, one that captures the whole of a life in some subtle gesture. The lifting of a cork from the floor, a boy turning away from a booth at a bazaar, a servant with the legs of a dying man on his shoulders-these images from the masters (Carver, Joyce, Tolstoy) haunt us after we read them, since we, too, have seen our entire lives summed up from lime to time in flashes, in the way we nod and listen to a woman over the table, or ask for another cup of coffee. Todd Field’s debut film In the Bedroom from the masterful Andre Dubus’ short story “Killings” ends with just such a haunting gesture, a casual line of dialogue delivered (outside the bedroom actually) with such precision that it steals your breath. Brilliant. The screen goes black.
Once that line is offered over the final image, the film plays in reverse and starts again for us, and everything fits. While we initially squirmed through parts of the drama and wondered which character to fall in love with and which event to decry or laud, we had received many reassurances that our patience would be rewarded. We might not have known where events would lead, but every syllable of the compact dialogue and every framing of the landscape around Camden, Maine, reassured us-the film says, I know where we are going; just wait.
The story follows the line of a Greek tragedy. A young man (Nick Stahl) falls in love with a beautiful older woman (Marisa Tomei) with two small children, whose disturbed soon-to-be ex-husband (William Mapother) won’t let go. The young man’s parents (Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek) differ on how to counsel their son” an effect of their long years together – and their hesitancy leads to an acceleration of the conflict, and then tragedy. Afterward, the parents wrestle with how to respond to the events which slipped past their control, the wife silently frustrated until the husband finally finds appropriate means for achieving catharsis.
This story of interior conflicts gets played against a cool New England backdrop, which suggests a cosmic indifference to the turns of Fate’s wheel that destroy the happiness of such little people. This is not the New England of Jonathan Edwards, nor even of John Cheever. It’s much much colder – Raymond Carven’s world comes to mind. And the characters don’t struggle for personal redemption and human companionship. They just want to ward off the pain and get through another day.
Toward the end of the film, one of the husband’s card-playing friends offers as consolation some verses by William Blake that suggest the folly of older people trying to understand the “long thoughts” that motivate the young. It’s a great touch – the secondary characters each have their own tales to tell. But I thought of the dour Robert Frost while I listened, not the romantic mystic Blake. A New Englander himself who suffered his own set of family catastrophes, Frost wrote, “I’d like to get away from earth awhile and then come back to it and begin over”. The characters in this drama grow very weary by the end, too weary to think through what has happened. All will be covered in silence, after all.
Like most great artistic achievements, the seamless ones, this film needs to be seen, rather than talked about. Whether or not Sissy Spacek or the film itself will win an Academy Award is idle matter. Perhaps if we incline toward the auteur approach and believe that the director stamps each component of the work with his own imprint, we might be compelled to argue that Todd Field deserves acclaim. If so, the assist should go to the late Andre Dubus whose forceful story pushed Field toward this excellence.
Better, however, to leave that discussion and reflect on the film’s depiction of the human condition, that is the point, after all. The film asks us to understand why events unfold in our lives as they do, and suggests that were we to probe those areas that trigger our actions we might find things unexpected. For a film as devoid of religious and philosophical speculation as this one, on the surface at least, one cannot help but walk away wondering why so many deep cracks run through our humanity.