It’s not safe to read beyond this first paragraph. Not if you want to preserve the secret of what happens in In the Bedroom before you see the movie. But here are four things you can chew on without spoiling the surprise: (1) In the Bedroom is an uncommonly good movie — a thriller that transcends thrills to become a heartfelt and heart-stopping personal drama. (2) Oscar would be a fool not to salute the career-crowning performances of Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson as the parents of a college-age son (Nick Stahl) whose simmering affair with an older woman (Marisa Tomei) leads to tragedy. (3) Actor Todd Field (he was the blindfolded piano player at the orgy in Eyes Wide Shut) makes a pitch-perfect feature-film directing debut and co-writes (with Rob Festinger) a script based on the Andre Dubus short story “Killings” that resonates with ferocity and feeling. (4) Child wizards on flying broomsticks don’t figure in the plot, just ordinary people chasing personal demons without the benefit of magic.
Now on to matters better appreciated after you see the movie. That college boy — his name is Frank Fowler, and Stahl plays him with enormous warmth and subtlety — is the focus for the film’s other characters. For Natalie (Tomei), a thirtysomething waitress and mother of two who has just separated from her abusive husband, Frank is a reminder of youthful promise. Field opens the film with the lovers rolling in the high grass. It’s the end of summer, and the small Maine village that runs on lobster and canning dollars exudes a shimmering Andrew Wyeth-like delicacy, thanks to luminous camerawork from Antonio Calvache. Frank thinks he’d like to settle down with Natalie — no surprise, since Tomei’s sensual, touching performance is her best ever — and work the lobster boats like his grandfather. The situation is idyllic. That’s the problem.
Frank has been groomed for things beyond small-time life. His father, Matt (Wilkinson), the town doctor, enjoys and even envies his son’s affair with the earthy Natalie, but he fully expects his only child to continue his architecture studies on the graduate level in the fall. Frank’s mother, Ruth (Spacek), a music teacher at the local school, feels even more strongly on this issue. Ruth sees the lure of Natalie as a threat to her son’s future. To Natalie’s estranged husband, Richard (William Mapother, Tom Cruise’s cousin), Frank represents a more direct threat. In a scene of explosive rage — more brutal for what it doesn’t show — Richard kills Frank, leaving his loved ones bereft and haunted by his absence.
Most movies, especially weepy melodramas, would have ended here. But Frank’s death is just the beginning of In the Bedroom, a spellbinder that stays true to the lunging moral intensity of the fiction of Andre Dubus, who died in 1999, by pushing unflinchingly into disturbing corners of the mind. Grief eats at these people. And Field shows a sharp eye for the shading that defines character. Matt goes back to work, lunches with his friend Willis (wonderfully etched by William Wise) and makes a quiet show of normalcy. Natalie also finds comfort in routine. But Ruth slowly retreats. Even with her friends, such as Willis’ wife, Katie (Celia Weston), Ruth can’t hear talk of their grandchildren without wincing at her loss.
Time passes but doesn’t heal wounds; revenge, or at least the thought of it, does. When Richard is paroled and looks primed to get off with a light sentence, Ruth and Matt find it painful to live with the world, or each other. Their home is suddenly a battlefield of wounding accusations that have festered unexpressed for too long. If you want to see a master class in acting, watch Spacek and Wilkinson go at each other in scenes that shake the foundation of what appeared to be the solid marriage of Ruth and Matt. No wonder they both shared the only acting prize given at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Spacek hasn’t had a role this substantial in years, and she cuts to the heart with the same blunt honesty she brought to Carrie, Badlands and her Oscar-winning role in Coal Miner’s Daughter. Wilkinson, a British actor (The Full Monty) with a knack for getting under the skin of his American character, creates a galvanizing portrait of a decent man pushed beyond his limits.
The revenge plot, with its call for vigilante justice, may stir controversy. But it would be wrong to confuse the filmmakers’ intentions with those of the protagonists. Here is a thriller that offers neither reconciliation nor redemption for Ruth or Matt. Field also denies audiences the easy out of feeling morally superior. That’s part of the film’s resonant power. Enter In the Bedroom at your own risk — it will hit you hard.