There is no ideal spectator for “In the Bedroom.” Viewers without children cannot possibly comprehend the depth of the main characters’ grief at the death of their only child. Viewers with children probably could not bear to watch at all.
The great dilemma of Todd Field’s new film is precisely this imprecision which colors every formal and thematic aspect of the work, ultimately destabilizing what had promised to be an interesting film about two parents’ reactions to the death of their college-aged son at the hands of his girlfriend’s violent estranged husband.
Though the film contains realistically plain and awkward speech, its symbolism is heavy-handed and obvious in a manner befitting stage or literature (the ending is based on a short story). The utter lack of nuance and the unsophisticated execution of theme creates a most unfortunate blend of pathos and bathos.
While the reader of a literary text might patiently sit through a fisherman’s musings on the dangers of older female crabs, for example, and pleasurably relate this to the dangers of the older female lover in the story, the textual space through which such discussions and parallels are separated (potentially hundreds of pages) is compressed in this film and therefore should have been made much more subtle.
The concerns of the film are also too many: we move from a love story to a murder to a courtroom drama to a meditation on grief to a vigilante ending. The death of the son occurs quite early in the film, and the majority of the work is concerned with the aftershocks in the family.
But the setup for the death is a diluted romance, and the result of the death is but a diluted drama. The film seems to want to be “The Sweet Hereafter” — that brilliant but utterly depressing exegesis on peoples’ reactions to tragedy — but ends with a “Fargo”-like twist that takes it nowhere. In trying to be Everystory, of course, the film ends up being nothing.
That is not to say there are no redeemable qualities to “In the Bedroom.” It has won awards at every major film festival in this country; the two lead actors were given special jury prizes at Sundance, and both Golden Globe and Oscar watchers have been talking it up.
The performances from a tight-lipped Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson are far less interesting to watch, however, than the movements of Marisa Tomei, whose underrated talent allows her to move effortlessly from a mousy, skittish woman to a fantasy female emanating feisty, coltish sexuality.
Tomei’s plausible acting, however, cannot hide the fact that the two female characters in the film are problematically written: Spacek, as the mother, is passive-aggressive, withholding and sends her husband to do her dirty work for her; Tomei is sexual but weak and plays the consummate victim to her husband.
One has to respect the film’s narrative strategy — the split in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 “Psycho,” in which a lead character was murdered one-third of the way through the film, caused a riot; these days such a twist is still rare. Furthermore, numerous important events occur off-screen in a theatrically inflected and entirely anti-Hollywood manner.
Vignettes without a trace of dialogue also pepper the middle section of the film, attempting to represent the complicated emotion that is grief. (Grief is far more maturely depicted in the outstanding 2000 film “Under the Sand” with Charlotte Rampling, but what can I say — it’s French.)
Indeed, my greatest problem with the melodramatic and unmotivated ending of the film, in which the dead boy’s parents take the law into their own hands, is that it attempts to articulate precisely what it spent the majority of the film arguing could not be articulated.
The seduction of this film, and the reason, I would venture, for its critical popularity, is that it addresses a topic far more disturbing than most that cinema touches — grief, the unspeakable, aching, personal, haunting sort of grief — and disrupts the emotional equilibrium that we attend the cinema to have soothed.
But then right at the end, when we suspect that all can never again be right with the world, the film swoops in with a forced catharsis, reaffirms family and justice, and soothes the ragged spectatorial soul. That is cowardly.