It's not merely that Tom Wilkinson, as In the Bedroom's abruptly bereaved Dr. Matthew Fowler, turns in a wholly credible, utterly distinct and deeply moving performance. Those of us who've spent much of the past decade admiring the actor's uniquely craggy soulfulness -- as an all-too-human Priest; as an unemployed business exec reluctant to go The Full Monty -- have come to expect nothing less. No, what makes this particular achievement even more remarkable than usual is that director Todd Field and his cowriter, Rob Festinger, have deliberately deprived Wilkinson of the handiest and most reliable tools of his profession. Exploring the disjunction between onscreen and offscreen space, they relegate some of the story's most potentially dramatic moments to narrative ellipses, asking Wilkinson to convey emotions almost too raw to contemplate via only the smallest and most tentative of gestures.
When Dr. Fowler receives the phone call informing him that his only child has been murdered, Field cuts away before the news is delivered; instead, we register the depth of the man's loss many scenes later, by the tender way that he caresses a plank of wood nailed to the trunk of a tree in his backyard. (Wilkinson's expression carries such a sublimely sorrowful mixture of pain and pride, nausea and nostalgia, that you know even before the flashback kicks in that Fowler nailed the board there himself, as one rung on a ladder for his boy to climb.) Nor are we privy to the awful moment when Fowler must tell his wife, Ruth (the equally marvelous Sissy Spacek, rightfully honored beside Wilkinson this evening), what has happened -- which is just as well, really, since Wilkinson conveys the inescapable horror of that task in Fowler's zombified gait, seen from behind, as he shuffles one agonizing inch at a time down the hall of the school where Ruth teaches.
Yet In the Bedroom's tragedy wouldn't resonate were we not acutely conscious of what Matt Fowler has lost. And so it is that in a performance that plumbs the depths of humanity's most primal emotions -- envy, grief, rage, shame -- what I find most memorable of all is the easy good humor with which Wilkinson expresses the character's pleasure in his life before the incident. When Fowler stands on a dock, watching his son unload lobsters from a trawler, the actor's twinkling eyes belie the gruff rasp of his voice (did I mention that Wilkinson's American accent is all but flawless?); in bed with Ruth, his face breaks into a naughty grin as he contemplates making, and then does make, an off-color remark, and you can still hear that grin even through the mild "Ow!" he emits when Ruth playfully socks him. Using only his body and his imagination, Wilkinson thrills us to the core -- which, if you think about it, is what's supposed to happen in the bedroom.