In the Bedroom, starring Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek as parents coping with the murder of their son, is a lousy title for a wonderful movie. Adapted from the Andre Dubus short story “Killings” – a far better and more appropriate title – it unfolds with cumulative power. The narrative has all the contours of a classic revenge fantasy, but until the end we’re too caught up in the human details and psychological nuances to register its inevitability. Pulled deeply inside the puzzlement and grief of Matt and Ruth Fowler, we see the world as they do; we’re brought step by step, without our conscious assent, to the edge of a precipice that was waiting there all along.
Todd Field, who co-wrote the script with Rob Festinger, is an actor (Ruby in Paradise, Eyes Wide Shut) making his directorial debut, and he keeps the film squarely focused on the performers – which in this case is doubly rewarding since the performers are so uniformly good. It’s rare to see a movie that serves acting in this way, without a lot of hocus-pocus camerawork and overwrought close-ups. Field keeps his distance from the players, allowing them to work up their dramatic moments in what resembles real time. They seem like actual, flawed human beings, and their fate matters to us. When Matt, a doctor in a Maine fishing town, moves into action against his son’s killer (William Mapother), out on bail, our identification with the father is almost unbearable: If this man, so companionable and fair-minded, can be twisted toward such a retribution, then he could just as well stand in for all of us. It is not the violence of the already violent that is truly shocking; the real horror lies in watching decent people driven to mayhem.
Not that the Fowlers are sentimentalized. Part of what makes them seem so close to us is the ambiguity of their good intentions. Their boy Frank (Nick Stahl), at the beginning of the movie, has been having a summertime romance with Natalie (Marisa Tomei), a woman at least a decade older with two small boys. Ruth doesn’t like the look of it: Natalie, living by herself, is not yet divorced from her husband, and she doesn’t fit into Ruth’s conventional notions of her son’s future. Frank is a gifted architecture student on his way to college, and Natalie, bearing the comforts of a ready-made family, is, as Ruth sees it, a dangerous detour. Making matters worse for Ruth is the fact that Matt likes having Natalie around; he eyes her admiringly, taking pleasure in his boy’s success with her, which he perhaps imagines as his own.
Matt and Frank are very close; we can see their shared delight in each other during a marvelous lobstering scene, as well as in any number of other, more covert and unspoken moments. Ruth, who keeps her home immaculately appointed, as if it were a fortress of domesticity, is more controlling with her son than Matt is; perhaps she resents the bond he has with his father. When Frank is murdered by Natalie’s estranged husband – the murder, typical of Field’s principled reticence, happens off-camera – Ruth’s resentments boil over. “Frank died for your fantasy piece of ass,” she cries out to her husband, who stands convicted and bewildered. Natalie, approaching Ruth for forgiveness, is slapped; that slap makes the screen vibrate. Sissy Spacek is as good as she can be here: The control that Ruth has exerted over her life has come apart, horribly, and she suffers for it as she makes others suffer. You can’t pity her, because she doesn’t invite pity; there’s almost a nobility in the way this woman holds on to her rage, which is all she’s got to get her through her grief.
Matt lives a different kind of hell: His way of surviving his son’s murder is to stifle his mournfulness. Ruth pleads with him to stop acting like nothing happened, and she’s not wrong to do so. But Matt has further to travel to reach his vehemence. When he begins to take tentative measures to root out the killer he is convinced will get off easy, it’s almost as if he’s separating himself in two, coolly observing himself play out his retribution. Tom Wilkinson gives Matt the look of a man entirely fixated by an idea; once this good doctor takes up the role of avenger, he acquires the cast-iron control that had been Ruth’s. He becomes her surrogate, her savior.
The brief Andre Dubus story that this film fills out has a far more focused rage. It’s a harrowing fable about the limits and bounties of Christian salvation – although the religiosity is all implicit – and Dubus gives everything a fairly lurid overlay, a brackish dread. Dubus saw the murders as the playing out of larger forces. Field, who was friends with Dubus up until his death in 1999, doesn’t share the writer’s Catholic presentiments or his ravaged masculine code; he’s a much less complicated artist. But in his own straight-ahead way, he is pursuing the same issues of faith as Dubus was. He’s made a thriller about what we are capable of in the name of hatred – and of love.
Guillermo del Toro, the extravagantly talented Mexican director of the horror films Cronos and Mimic, can make even a shot of cigarette smoke curling skyward seem frightfully ominous. In The Devil’s Backbone, a ghost story set in an orphanage in the waning days of the Spanish Civil War, he blends agit-prop politics and ghoulishness without making the entire enterprise seem silly. He’s able to do this because he understands how war can bring out the strangeness in people’s perceptions; fear, as the patriarch played by Federico Luppi says, makes you see things. In such a world, the specter of a war orphan seems the most natural of emanations; the desperation of his suffering has made him more real, more human, than the humans… . K-Pax, an anthem-of-the-spirit sobfest, stars Kevin Spacey as a psychiatric patient who claims to be visiting Earth from a planet 1,000 light years away. He uplifts the other patients in the ward; he actually instructs one of them to seek out the bluebird of happiness, which, sure enough, appears on cue. This mystery man brings the sick to health while he himself remains a smirking enigma to his doctor, played with a slouchy, what-am-I-doing-in-this-movie bemusement by Jeff Bridges. Spacey is turning into another Robin Williams: Between this film and Pay It Forward he cops the prize for the Sappiest Performances by an Actor Previously Known to Have Great Talent. It’s understandable that most actors want to be loved. Do they need to be messiahs, too?
In the Bedroom
Co-written and directed by Todd Field, starring Sissy Spacek, Tom Wilkinson, and Marisa Tomei.
The Devil’s Backbone
Directed by Guillermo del Toro.