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Review: 'Bedroom' well-performed, but severe

Dreadful atmosphere

By Paul Tatara
CNN Reviewer

(CNN) -- Actor Todd Field's relentlessly bleak directing debut, "In the Bedroom," is so driven by misery it's practically an anti-romp. Although the screenplay is based on a short story by Andre Dubus, the resulting film -- in which unspeakable grief gradually overwhelms an otherwise decent family in a small New England community -- is reminiscent of Atom Egoyan's "The Sweet Hereafter."

Field's devastated characters are so primed to fall to pieces, you can't shake the sensation that they're barreling toward a brick wall. Sissy Spacek and (especially) Tom Wilkinson deliver memorably haunted performances, but the ugly, unenlightening story is something of a chore to endure.


Spacek and Wilkinson play Ruth and Matt Fowler, a happily married couple whose graduate student son, Frank (Nick Stahl), has taken a job as a lobster fisherman for the summer. As the story opens, Frank finds himself falling for a sensitive older woman named Natalie Strout (Marisa Tomei). He sincerely loves Natalie and her two children, but Ruth is concerned that he's in over his head.

Natalie, you see, is still trying to divorce her estranged husband, Richard (William Mapother), a self-centered troublemaker with a mean streak a mile wide. And Richard is none too happy that a vacationing college boy is trying to steal his woman.

Methodical plotting

It's difficult to discuss "In the Bedroom" at length without revealing a shocking -- and shockingly staged -- plot twist that comes about 40 minutes into the story. Perhaps it's best to say that dread saturates virtually every frame of the film, and Field should be applauded for establishing it with a minimum of fuss.

He methodically paces sequences until you're desperate for emotional release, then refuses to let it happen. And, being an actor himself, he gives his cast enough room to find the sickening truth at the root of a scene. Spacek and Wilkinson, in particular, are nearly strangled by the lost promise of fresh air and blue skies.

This picture couldn't be further removed from the noisy blockbusters that are currently choking our screens or, more precisely, the five screens that haven't been commandeered by The Harry Potter Experience.

Tomei, who's as good as she's ever been, is at the center of an emotional tug-of-war that's pulling her character in several directions at once. Natalie is in a major bind -- she badly wants suspicious Ruth to warm up to her, and rightly suspects that Matt is lusting after her fit body.

It's unfortunate that Field inexplicably disregards Tomei's presence in the latter portion of the film. A little more screen time and she might have been in the running for another Oscar nomination.

Top-notch acting

Spacek is equally compelling. Ruth is a kind-hearted high school choir teacher, but her spirit eventually disintegrates from the weight of a situation she can't control. You can see her systematically closing off any corridors of light in her life.

Wilkinson, an Englishman who's probably best known in the United States for his performances in "Shakespeare in Love" (1999) and "The Full Monty" (1997), takes it a step further. Just when you think Matt has built a barricade between himself and the rest of the world, he attempts to rectify a desperate act with an equally desperate, obviously inappropriate response. Again, it's hard to even watch the screen while he does it.

As good as the performances are, much of the movie flounders. Field likes to reach for significance by focusing on apparently mundane moments in the lives of people who are morbidly preoccupied, and it works for a while.

But the unforgiving tone, the sense that there's nowhere to go but down and out, leaves the audience little room to ponder character motivation. If this is a movie about surrender, it would have been nice to see more of a battle before everyone started waving their white flags.

"In the Bedroom" contains profanity, and, as already stated, a genuinely effective moment of violence. Don't be surprised if you're craving a happy meal when it's all over.


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