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Read past reviews by the Film Gang

In the Bedroom
Reviewed by Carla Freccero

Now playing at the Nickleodeon in Santa Cruz, In the Bedroom, directed by actor Todd Field and based on a short story by Andre Dubus, "Killings," has garnered Oscar nominations and won Golden Globe awards.  You can understand why; it's a very serious movie. It combines picturesque and traditional small-town life (it takes place in Camden, Maine) with extraordinary violence and, finally, leans hard on the acting talent of its characters, who are, in this case, eminently worthy of the challenge.  Most of the intensity comes, not from what actually happens, but from what goes on emotionally between, among, and within the main characters. And right from the very beginning, in brief and carefully chosen scenes, the film makes us understand the currents that run between these people, and the ways that class, sex, and character, in particular, shape their responses to events. 
Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson are Matt and Ruth Fowler; he's a doctor and she's a music teacher at the local high school. Matt's dad was a lobster fisherman in that very same town, but Matt  and Ruth are post-graduate educated upper-middle class folks who have moved back to this small village.  Their son, Frank (played by Nick Stahl) is having what he calls a summer fling with an older woman, Natalie Strout (Marisa Tomei), but we can see it's a lot more serious than that. She's a working class girl, separated but not divorced from her angry and unstable husband, Richard (William Mapother), who is also the son of the fishing company that keeps Camden solvent.  Ruth disapproves of the relationship, while Matt looks on with a combination of nostalgia and lecherous voyeurism.  Natalie's husband is, of course, jealous, and his rage precipitates the traumatic incident that generates the rest of the movie's plot.

The small town setting of the film makes the rage and grief that is its subject seem to suffocate the couple. There is no escape:  everyone knows what happened, the main players in the drama are still there, frequenting the grocery store and the docks-- and no one seems to want to talk very much about it.  In this claustrophobic environment, husband and wife evolve separate inner worlds that spill out and crash against each other in the riveting dramatic center of the story.  Nearly all of what makes this very long movie absorbing and intense is carried by Spacek and Wilkinson who, both individually and together, create rich and believable studies in emotional devastation. 

One friend of mine remarked that this is a movie that criticizes good people; it understands, in other words, that good people can feel and do monstrous things, and it knows how to study those flaws with compassion and sympathy.  For that alone, the movie's worth seeing, since so few films trust us to understand the real complexity of concepts like good and evil.  This one does. 

In the Bedroom also tells a submerged story about a kind of capitalist competition in the fishing industry between the mass production of Strout's (there are factory scenes of the stages of fish processing and canning) and the old-fashioned, non-industrial, small-scale lobster harvesting of the Fowlers.  Instead of big bad business replacing small, the inverse seems to occur, and lobster trumps canned fish. But of course lobster is also a luxury item, just as those who run the lobster business in this movie are, unlike the Strouts, distinctly upper-middle class. I like to think of it as an allegory about the contradictions of independent filmmaking: on the one hand, so-called independent films benefit from the idea that they achieve a kind of artistic purity unsullied by crass commercialism. On the other, as a full-page ad in the New York Times recently pointed out, In the Bedroom is also a full-length feature film commercial for Marlboro cigarettes.   Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero. 

Copyright Carla Freccero 2002