The opening scene of In the Bedroom echoes Andrew Wyeth’s “classic” American painting Christina’s World (1948). In it a young woman half lies, half sits in a field with her back to us, looking up at a house. The style is realistic enough, but there is something deeply unsettling about the work. Why, for example, can’t we see her face? In the film a smiling young couple runs across a field towards a similar structure, and the dreamy sense of sinister foreboding in the air is as palpable as it is in the painting.
Lying in the field later on the woman tells the boy she loves him. His reply is benign silence. He clearly likes her, but that’s as far as it goes. The next shot before the title sequence is of a graveyard in the distance, oblique as the title and most of the movie. So we’re in literary mode here. This is big-theme time in small-town America.
Set in the small coastal town of Rockland in Maine, a middle-aged married couple live out their comfortable lives. Unlike his father, Matt Fowler (Tom Wilkinson) did not become a lobsterman but went away and became a doctor. He married music teacher Ruth (Sissy Spacek), rather implausibly came back to his home town and they had a son.
Frank (Nick Stahl) is a promising architecture student at home on vacation. He was the one running through the field with a divorced woman (Marisa Tomei), who has two small children and a vicious ex-husband. Frank assures his mother it’s just a vac fling. She is quite content with that: why would she want another man and woman’s offspring when she can have her own grandchildren one day?
From this very simple set-up a tragedy of nightmarish proportions unfolds. The tension before and the hurt after the event is so acute that to talk about it or deal with it in any way would shatter one like the bottle, to mix a metaphor, it’s all kept in.
If the father goes into denial by working hard then the mother goes into self-destructive mode: she smokes Marlboros like a chimney and watches family TV with a perfectly blank face. Now, much has been made of Sissy Spacek’s Oscar-nominated performance and it is indeed quite a performance. Not much, if anything, however, has been made of the character she plays.
Ruth is clearly an ex-hippy. She doesn’t wear make-up. She wears patches on the patches of her jerseys. She conducts a choir that sings those wonderfully atonal Eastern European folk songs. Her interpretation of those songs is rather soft and dreamy. There is nothing of the wild, slightly shrill, blood-curdling beauty in them. That too is still in character, even if the music suffers.
But when the tension between husband and wife becomes intolerable and they start hauling out the dirty laundry, it transpires that she is nothing but an icy perfectionist — a cold, demanding bitch. Nobody has ever been good enough for her and, even though ex-hippies quite easily turn out to be as nasty as the rest of us, there hasn’t been any hint of this in Ruth’s character. It is an emotional deus ex machina.
And suddenly we’re back with one of two Hollywood stereotypes: if a woman is not all deep feelings as represented by litres of tears, then she is a devourer of the men-folk around her, as Ruth is suddenly supposed to be. And if she is thus, then her husband is usually sensitive. Very sensitive. Oscar-winning sensitive, when all Wilkinson does, in fact, with respect to a fine actor, is add a New England accent to his natural English restraint.
It’s Ordinary People all over again, except that that film at least stuck to its guns, whereas In the Bedroom merely ends up, to mix another metaphor like director Todd Field mixes genres, resorting to them. Being neither a complete study of loss nor one of criminal motive but half of both, we are left with similar feelings. Marisa Tomei, who usually plays fluffy comedic parts, delivers the most satisfying performance as a flawed and therefore real woman who ends up in a terrible situation, but then her character is also dumped along the way.
Based on a story by the late author Andre Dubus, it comes as no surprise that he wanted to write westerns — the scenes of male friendship are perfectly convincing. Yet for all the above In the Bedroom is still an impressive debut, even if it doesn’t quite achieve what Wyeth is quoted as saying in his Helga series: “You look at my pictures … there’s witchcraft and hidden meaning there.”