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Silence of the Broken Heart

Two contrasting scenes: In one, a middle-aged physician, Matt Fowler (Tom Wilkinson), and his music teacher wife, Ruth (Sissy Spacek), lounge in bed. He's reading. She's doing needlepoint. They fall into conversation, mostly idle chat. Then a phrase is turned, a smutty double entendre. They laugh. And pretty soon they are making love. Lovely. Better than that actually. Wonderful. In a subsequent scene, Ruth sits staring into space, smoking a cigarette with no apparent pleasure whatsoever. Matt comes in from work. They greet. Matt talks briefly about his day. As he passes from the room, Ruth mutters bitterly that her husband has exhibited no interest as to the events of her day. When Matt inquires what she's just said, Ruth refuses to tell him. The chill in the room on screen is so palpable the movie audience shivers. In between the first scene and the second, a tragedy occurs. But which is the real couple, the laughing lovers or the estranged housemates? Both. And that's the heart-numbing point of Todd Field's nigh despairing In the Bedroom.

Based on an Andre Dubus short story and adapted for the screen by director Field and Robert Festinger, In the Bedroom arrives in New Orleans on the wings of unusual critical acclaim. The American Film Institute has already awarded Spacek its best actress award. The National Board of Review has selected Field as best director. And the New York Film Critics Circle has tapped Wilkinson for best actor, Spacek for best actress and Field for best first film. Meanwhile, the picture is a serious contender in the Golden Globe competition, nominated for best picture and with acting nominations for Spacek as best actress and Marisa Tomei for best supporting actress. Obviously, with such a resume as this, forthcoming Oscar nominations are presumed.

In the Bedroom is the story of how the death of a child can tear apart the lives of his grief-stricken parents. The Fowlers' son Frank (Nick Stahl) is a recent college graduate now preparing for graduate school in architecture. He's a bright, sunny, compassionate person, and his mom and dad adore him. Matt and Frank fish together and talk about the issues of the day. Ruth just beams at being in her son's presence. These are people who don't just love each other; they like to be together. The only cloud on their family horizon is Frank's recent involvement with Natalie Strout (Tomei). Natalie is older than Frank, a thirtyish mother with two young boys and a husband, Richard (William Mapother), from whom she is separated but not yet divorced. Frank and Natalie are in stage one of romantic enchantment, so full of longing for one another they are almost blind to the complications of their circumstances. But theirs is a fundamentally healthy attachment. Frank loves Natalie's children and treasures spending time with them on picnics or Little League ball games. Matt and Ruth aren't enthralled by this relationship, however. They like Natalie well enough. But they think she's too old for Frank. And they fear she might influence him to delay or even forego additional schooling. In their separate and divergent ways, Matt and Ruth both make their misgivings clear to Frank, but everything is low key, civilized and loving.

Then tragedy strikes, and the world changes in a violent instant. In hindsight, Frank should probably have seen that one day Richard might actually kill him. But he didn't see it coming, and neither did anyone else. In the aftermath of their son's death, Matt and Ruth draw apart rather than come together. Mostly, and for a long time, they suffer in silence. And the long middle portion of the film is so quiet it will prove testing to some viewers. But Field knows exactly what he's doing, gradually building an almost excruciating tension. It finally breaks in a brutal scene of mutual indictment. In their horror at their son's death, and in their utter emotional devastation, they turn on each other, each viciously blaming the other for something neither even remotely caused. This scene is almost physically painful to watch and absolutely true.

The last half hour of In the Bedroom heads off in a direction I wish it hadn't. In an effort to find peace, Matt and Ruth plot a course for themselves I found less than convincing, even as I might praise Field for suggesting that this course will lead them away from rather than toward the release they seek. Still, this is a movie of rare strengths. Though it's his debut feature, Field controls this film like an established master. Every scene is just so; not a moment is wasted. And the acting is all the accumulated awards promise. Thematically, the picture is wise if not consoling. A weekly card game is visited repeatedly, and therein lies a key metaphor: Sometimes life deals you a hand you just can't play.

click to enlarge Natalie (Marisa Tomei) spells trouble in the eyes of Ruth (Sissy Spacek) in Todd Field's remarkable debut effort, In the Bedroom.
  • Natalie (Marisa Tomei) spells trouble in the eyes of Ruth (Sissy Spacek) in Todd Field's remarkable debut effort, In the Bedroom.


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