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In the Bedroom

By Rick Curnutte

Richard A. Curnutte, Jr. is the Editor of The Film Journal. He has studied English and Film at Ohio University and The Ohio State University. He is a founding member of the Central Ohio Film Critics Association and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.

Grief is one of our most primal emotions. Though many animals exhibit some signs of this behavior, it is generally believed that humans are unique in their experience of this natural, though painful, experience. Grief comes in many forms: grief over a wrong doing; the grief brought out of telling a lie; grief over unnatural tragedies. All of these are innate responses to the ill feelings born from some sort of injustice or, often simply, sadness. The grief over the loss of human life is perhaps the most immediate and heart-wrenching incarnation of this.

The cinema has had varying degrees of success in dealing with this conceptually complex idea. Beginning perhaps with Broken Blossoms (D.W. Griffith, 1919), in which death, and the violence inherent with it, is tragically rendered through indifference, films have sought to make sense of something that cannot be controlled. In that film, Griffith tells the story of a young Chinese man, living in London's Limehouse district, who tries to bring to the West the peaceful philosophy of his Eastern religion. Befriending a poor waif (Lillian Gish) with an abusive father, his presence sets a disastrous collision course, which results in tragedy. Under Griffith's sure hand, the subject matter is intimately portrayed, but only passively effective as a treatise on dealing with grief, and it's previously honest, though dated, story of ill-fated love, is reduced to a revenge tale in its final moments.

Hamlet (Laurence Olivier, 1948) is a bit more precise with its direct correlation between bereavement and angst. Hamlet's vow of vengeance upon his father's murderers is one brought on by extreme attachment and familial gentility, rather than a political or even pathological leaning. Certainly a larger conspiracy is ultimately uncovered, but Hamlet's initial reaction, at least as portrayed by Olivier, is out of love for his father.

Other, more recent films have dealt more directly with the loss of a child, either at a young age, or later in life, but always from the perspective of a surviving parent or sibling, with the possible exception of The Sweet Hereafter (Atom Egoyan, 1996), which, although it does have moments of coping with the parents of children who died in a school bus accident, deals mainly with the accident's only eye witness, a now paralyzed teenager (Sarah Polley). That film uses the young girl, and her own personal anguish, as well as that of a big-city attorney (Ian Holm) and his drug-addicted daughter, to draw parallels between figurative and literal death (the teenager has been sexually abused by her father; the lawyer has watched his adored daughter become a shell of her former self). Terms of Endearment (James L. Brooks, 1983), although most of the film deals with the complicated, dysfunctional relationship between a mother and daughter (Shirley Maclaine and Debra Winger), delves finally into the extremely unfair nature of watching a grown child die slowly of a deadly illness.

Perhaps most successfully, Ordinary People (Robert Redford, 1980) is the story of a middle class family's struggle to overcome the tragic accidental death of a young son. His brother (Timothy Hutton, who won an Oscar) soon becomes suicidal. His father (Donald Sutherland) has pent his sorrow up deep inside to try to bring some semblance of normalcy to their lives. But the mother (Mary Tyler Moore), always icy and distant, has chosen to completely ignore the issue. The common thread that binds nearly all of these films is that the characters involved achieve some kind of closure to their grief. Be it through vengeance (Hamlet), truthfulness (The Sweet Hereafter) or emotional redemption (Ordinary People), most involved come out hurt, but not permanently damaged.

Todd Field's In the Bedroom is the most intimate, revealing and visceral portrayal of grief and its consequences that I've ever seen. The story of a modest, middle aged couple (Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek) who are faced with the murder of their only son (Nick Stahl), In the Bedroom starts off as what seems to be a run-of-the-mill story of loss and redemption. The parents will deal with their grief, hash it out, and finally get over it. But both director and his actors take those expectations and throw them out.

Much has been made of Sissy Spacek's performance. She won nearly every year-end film award except for the Best Actress Oscar. Her kudos are deserving, but not for all of the typical reasons. She has her "big" moments, to be sure, but the performance is much more layered than I had expected. In her very early scenes, namely the birthday party that opens the film, she exudes the confidence and demeanor of a satisfied, controlling mother. It's her house. She knows where everything is. She knows what to serve and how to serve it. When her son, Frank's, girlfriend, Natalie, (Marisa Tomei) comes into her kitchen to be of assistance, Spacek takes the time to grant Ruth a couple of beats to find something to give Natalie to do. She needs to make a salad. Perhaps the girl can handle giving her a bowl. Though she has other food to prepare and serve, she takes the bowl, which was a foot away to begin with, and begins to chop away at greens, something, perhaps, another person would have asked for help with. Ruth is not the type to show her hand to anyone, not even a potential family member.

This bravado belies her underlying insecurity, though, in the very next scene, when Natalie's ex-husband, Richard, shows up. Ruth hurries over to her husband, Matt (Wilkinson), and asks, "Should we do something?" This has caught her off guard. She didn't expect him. She wants to deal with it. It's a very small moment, but something that is integral in understanding what will later manifest through her outrage and grief. After Frank is killed, Spacek makes another daring choice. Rather than just playing the stricken mother, she decides to take the grief, and its cause, personally. She's not just angered at her son's murder: she's angry because someone dared to interrupt her plans for him. He was supposed to be an architect, to go away to school that fall, to outgrow the simplicity of coastal life.

Throughout the picture, Spacek tows the line between withdrawing into sadness and pushing away happiness, two damaging, but very different, ways of handling sorrow.

Tom Wilkinson, also an Oscar nominee, brings a different type of acting into the picture. Here he has what would seem to be the frightened kitten role. He is sad and confused, unsure in how to handle what's happened. He and Frank were extremely close. They had that type of relationship where they knew they were living on the fringes of Ruth's expectations of them. We get the impression that Matt snuck Frank sweets at night, or late him stay up late when Ruth was away. They weren't just father and son, they were friends, perhaps partners in crime. His loss is, admittedly, greater than Ruth's on the surface. She was the boss, he was the buddy. A telling moment comes just after Frank's wake. After checking on Ruth, Matt goes into Frank's bedroom. After cursory glances at Frank's architectural drawings (it was, after all, Ruth's dream, not his, not Frank's), he finds an old tackle box. Inside is a small fishing lure. Upon picking it up and examining it, Matt simply melts into forceful sobs. Wilkinson doesn't build up to it, like a classically trained actor might. There are no small, leaking tears. He just hunches over Frank's desk and weeps uncontrollably. In this moment, volumes are spoken. We see fishing trips in Frank's youth; stories told; nudged shoulders and sleepy eyes. Wilkinson's near-Method approach to his character is filled with flawless timing and naturalistic nuances. It is the most fully-realized and effecting performance in the film.

The course that these two take must obviously lead somewhere, but here it leads to two places: to confrontation and to more death.

In the most revealing and naked scene in the film, Ruth and Matt square off, having both come to a point where they cannot go on as things are. Ruth accuses Matt of not grieving, of letting Frank get away with everything, of lusting after Natalie, of conspiring with Frank against her. She's desperate to place blame elsewhere, but Matt shoots back that she was controlling, demeaning, unsupportive of Frank's needs and aspirations. He says she's become cold and distant, even going so far to say, "How can I talk to you? Sometimes I can't even look at you. You scare me." Obviously, like all people, they have different ways of grieving. But they cannot fathom that the other hasn't reacted in the same way that they have. They've finally lashed out, and maybe there's no turning back, but this incident has to happen if they are to go on living together. There is screaming and crying, but what makes this scene work so well is what makes the rest of the film so successful: the small moments. Ruth, right in the middle of a conversation, one that she started and whose very subject is communication, closes the door of a room she's entering, just so Matt will be thrown off his rhythm, so she'll be one step ahead.

Early in the scene, Matt, flabbergasted by what Ruth is saying, wipes forcefully at his mouth, as if to say, "You want me to talk? Ok, here it comes." Just as the argument has come to eruption, there's a knock on the door: a small girl selling candy bars. Cut to Matt walking into the room with six gigantic bars of candy, and the tension is wiped away with a small bit of humor. Things are brought down a notch, apologies are made, and things are made just nice enough for one last bit of business: Ruth tells Matt that she's seen Richard around town and that the last time she saw him he actually smiled at her. She's waited until this moment, when Matt is most vulnerable, to uncover her real motives, which become painfully clear: she doesn't want to wait for the justice system to punish the killer.

Despite what some of the film's few detractors have said, this is not a revenge film. You see, Matt does not appoint himself executioner because he wants vengeance. He simply wants peace. He knows that Ruth will not rest until Richard is gotten rid of. Matt wants to move on. He has, in his way, grieved his son. He wants his marriage back. It may not be a perfect union, but it's all he has left. So he does what she wants, simple as that. Unfortunately, he will not have his peace, as the film's final scene shows.

Having returned from the killing, he lies in bed, unresponsive, picking away at a bandage on his finger. Ruth, having confirmed the inevitable, goes to make coffee, asking Matt if he wants any. She has made her peace; she has her control back. All Matt can comment on is a picture of Richard and Natalie that was hanging in Richard's bathroom.

We see that this final, desperate measure has not accomplished what he had hoped. He still has his grief. Now he has another kind, one of having performed the worst possible act a human being can do: taking another man's life, the thing that brought him to this point to begin with. On this note, the film ends in silence, much as it began.

First-time director Todd Field, an actor in Ruby in Paradise (Victor Nunez, 1993) and Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999), displays a precise, almost surgical patience with both narrative and performance. Even as he allows his actors to dissect these emotionally distraught, complex personas, he allows the camera the explore the regions of both the big emotion and the small, quiet moment. His temperament and restraint bring us glimpses of the mundane (mowing the lawn, eating cole slaw, crossing a tow bridge), the tiny things that break up the monotony of daily life, even as they become part of the monotony. Sometimes, he allows seemingly small moments to carry a greater significance later on, as when we are shown a poker game where an old curmudgeon recites William Blake poems when Matt is being slow on his turn. Later on, after Frank's death, the soft-spoken warmth of the poetry brings life into the broken Matt.

As a director, Field has an actor's sensibility for savoring the moment, as when Natalie visits Ruth to apologize and Ruth slaps her, a full-on, awkward slap, something that was apparently not timed or rehearsed. Field knows that to get a real reaction from Tomei, she cannot know when the slap is coming. It plays beautifully and it's that last time we see Natalie. Even the staging of Frank's murder is sublime and richly imbued with realism. It's not glamorous or gratuitous. Natalie is hiding her two boys in their bedroom, she hears a gunshot on the stairway, and Frank is dead. It seems to be reflective of the senselessness of real violence. It's not pretty. It's just death. And when Matt kills Richard, it's a breathless, sorrowful moment. He's resigned himself to it. He's made a plan with a friend to take Richard into the woods, shoot him and bury him. But he can't bear to go through all of that. He lifts the gun, as if it's just a part of his arm, something intangible that can bring about silence as well as death and shoots Richard before they even have time to begin executing their plan. The violence in this film is among the least glamorous, but most realistic, I've ever seen in a film.

In a final, effective flourish, even the film's title is a misleading, having nothing at all to do with the sexuality implied in it. "The Bedroom" is, quite literally, the inside of a lobster trap. It's explained that putting a fertile, pregnant female lobster in the cage with several males is deadly: someone always gets hurt. The symbolism is not necessarily subtle, but does not suffer for it, as it can really be read several ways. A pregnant lobster is a mother, so it could be a reference to Ruth, and the trouble is between her and her husband and son. A slightly more obvious explanation is that Natalie is a mother and the conflict is between Richard and Frank. However, I believe Field and co-writer Rob Festinger were being a bit coy in choosing their film's title. In the Bedroom, as a title, and the way it relates to the lobster story, speaks volumes about the very nature of life and death. Perhaps more broadly than simply focusing on the characters of the film, Field and Festinger are speaking about the concept of a kind of earthly "Mother", that of Nature or God, and the children that are spawned from the earth. With such an abundance of life, it's inevitable that some of the children will become destructive, disrupting the fabric of humanity. Either way, changing the title from "Killings" (the title of Andre Dubus' short story, upon which the film is based) to In the Bedroom, takes the emphasis off the murders, especially the last, and places it upon this human element, which is really what the piece is about after all. It is not about justice or revenge. It is, ultimately, a haunting portrait of the quiet void caused by loss and the lengths that people will go to to silence the noise of their grief.


In the Bedroom