For the last several months images of heroism have filled the media. The immediate heroes, the firefighters, police and rescue workers, have gradually been supplanted by brave survivors, mourning the dead and living for the future. Their stories have helped us through the horror, especially in this most trying of holiday seasons. As a nation, and as a world community, we are grateful.
Yet somewhere out there, amid the thousands of cruelly emptied lives, some people, in some circumstances, bear wounds that will not heal. What about them: the broken, the angry, the embittered, the opportunistic, the vindictive? Coping with tragedy brings out the best in people, and sadly the worst, and at times something indefinable in-between. Battered human beings experience a bewildering complexity of emotions, and responses vary with each one. Who can grasp another’s loss? Psychologists have devised marvelous tools to map the various pathways taken through personal tragedies, but ultimately charting this terrifying, unknowable world remains the task of the artist.
In the Bedroom treats loss as a mystery, as in fact it is. Director Todd Field and his co-screenwriter Rob Festinger, adapting a short story by the late Andre Dubus, never cheapen the human tragedy by reducing it to the comprehensible. An only son is gone. Parents seek an explanation, but find none. More accurately, they find many. Searching for someone to blame, they turn on the world, on each other and finally on themselves. How to react with reverence to the dead, and to the living? In scene after scene, the script surgically removes their eyelids and forces them to look at each other and themselves in the glaring spotlight of truth. But even as suffering yields to fatigue, how deeply has their private truth been shaped and colored by remorse. What can they do with the knowledge they have gained? They don’t know. Doing nothing only intensifies their suffering.
Camden, Me., as it appears through the lens of cinematographer Antonio Calvache, glows like a postcard in fog-filtered summer sunlight. Tucked in the shoreline between Portland and Bangor, it hides among hills that drop gently into a harbor that still supports a modest fishing and lobster industry. Even relatively prosperous gentry from the town own small boats and tend a few lobster traps. It’s the tradition. One boatman pulls up his pots and retrieves a large lobster with one claw missing. He explains to a small boy that when two or more lobsters become trapped in the same bedroomthat is, the receptacle of the trapthey sometimes try to tear one another apart. This is the bedroom of the film’s title: intimacy unto dismemberment.
Camden provides little space for privacy. Frank Fowler (Nick Stahl) has finished college and waits for letters of acceptance from graduate schools of architecture. During the lazy months between studies, Frank becomes involved with Natalie Stout (Marisa Tomei), a thirtyish mother of two, currently separated from her husband, Richard Stout (William Mapother). Their relationship is no secret to any of the living.
The reaction of the older Fowlers is muted by their own modern, post-religious ethic. Ruth Fowler (Sissy Spacek) disapproves, possibly because she does not want to share her son with another woman, or because she believes he can do better than a married cashier at the town convenience store. Matt Fowler (Tom Wilkinson) sees his son’s behavior as harmless and natural, but his leering remarks about Natalie raise the suspicion that he might be reliving his own youth and fueling his middle-age fantasies through his son’s romance. Frank reassures his parents that it’s just a summer fling. No one worries about Natalie or her children. When Matt happens upon the lovers when he unexpectedly goes home for lunch, no one seems particularly embarrassed. He offers them cole slaw, and later teases his son by making ambiguous remarks about the incident in front of Ruth as though he were part of the tryst himself.
Another interrupted liaison leaves no room for dubious jokes. It turns to tragedy. Richard has a knack for breezing in at awkward times. With his wispy moustache, mechanical grin and edgy temperament, he has the look of a troubled adolescent trying to strut his way into manhood. He walked out on his family, became involved with another woman for a time, and then suddenly announces that he intends to walk back, as though Natalie and the boys should feel grateful. As a token of his sincerity and immaturity, he leaves one of his high-school sports trophies for his sons. Later, finding Frank and Natalie together in her home, he has no way to heal his wounded male pride other than murder. Through a technicality, the prosecutor has to reduce the charge to manslaughter. But the Fowlers are not interested in legal fine points. Their son is dead, and Richard smirks his way around the town, free on bail and facing a sentence of as little as five years, if found guilty by a legal system more concerned with technicalities than justice. They find themselves alone, with each other, two lobsters in the bedroom.
Ruth has been preparing a girls’ choir for a Labor Day concert of eastern European folk songs, an area that she studied for her thesis at Brown. The simple harmonies, all subject to a gesture from her conductor’s stand, her carefully designed costumes and ceremonies, fit in perfectly with her need for order and control. Devastated by the events of the summer, the once meticulous teacher spends the day in her bathrobe, lying on a sofa, smoking and watching mindless television, which she scarcely pays attention to. Turning herself into a victim, she mourns for herself and the lost orderliness of her world as much as for Frank. She listens politely to the town priest as he tries to counsel her, but in fact she cannot hear him, or anyone else who tries to reach her.
Matt Fowler, a physician, is a healer by profession. His efforts to return to a normal world, even without Frank, strike Ruth as callous and cruel. Clearly, she will not be satisfied until he destroys himself with grief as she has. They spar and fence in brittle, fragmented dialogue. The edgy tone and the silences say more than the few words they exchange. As Ruth has explained to her choir, the rests are louder than the notes. When they finally speak, their words shatter the remains of their emotional shells.
Todd Field, the director, also knows the value of rests. In several key scenes, as the action builds up to a dramatic climax, the screen fades to black for several seconds to indicate the passage of time. In these instances, the darkness is louder than the images. We know what has happened in the interlude, but what is more important is the aftermath. For Ruth and Matt the passage of time does not heal, despite the cliché; time merely allows the wounds to fester. As the infection spreads, it threatens to become fatal for both Ruth and Matt.
In the end, are they any better emotionally and morally, any more mature and any less self-centered than Frank, or Natalie, or Richard? Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek and Marisa Tomei have created those rare, miraculously complex characters that make us ponder deeply the meanings of the tragedies that on occasion strike each of us individually and in historic moments like Sept. 11, all of us collectively. In our grief, can we make ourselves the victims twice over? Is there an alternative that will preserve and enhance our humanity? Questions like these have no ready answers. As the film ends with an extreme long shot of the entire town of Camden, it suggests that these dilemmas extend beyond the Fowlers and touch all of us.
Such adult questions have become rare in contemporary film. This has been a season of witches and wizards, of elves and hobbits, of monsters and ogres, all fodder for the teen and pre-teen blockbuster market. In the Bedroom has come upon us quietly, with a limited release while it gathers rave reviews (like this one), nominations for Academy Awards (including best picture, best actor and best actress) and word-of-mouth endorsements from grateful audiences. It took nearly a month to reach wide distribution. Believe me, it was worth the wait.