In the Bedroom
Director: Todd Field
Screenplay: Rob Festinger and Todd Field
Cast: Sissy Spacek, Tom Wilkinson, Marisa Tomei
NY Distribution Status: now playing (Miramax)

Grade: B-

The following was originally posted on 3 March 2001 to a listserv to which I subscribe; since the film opened commercially in New York while I was in Thessaloniki, it'll have to serve as my review. Be warned, however, that it contains major spoilers. If you haven't yet seen the film, and plan to, come back later.

(No, you cannot join the listserv. We are a formerly-secret cabal plotting to take over the world. That sound you hear echoing in your head is our diabolical laughter. We especially like hitting the plosive 'mw' part of the mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha.)

Scott [Tobias] griped:

> 2. Conversely, Mike and Charles [Francois] appear to have drastically
> undervalued IN THE BEDROOM. C'mon guys, even if you were cool on it,
> I assume you're at least willing to concede that it was masterfully 
> conceived, written, directed, and acted.

I'll concur with "masterfully acted" (by Wilkinson in particular), and
even with "masterfully conceived" to a certain extent. But Field's
direction seemed to me fussy and over-deliberate, almost a parody of
earnest anti-Tarantino indie filmmaking. All those
black. Pauses so pregnant you keep looking around for the midwife. The
material's plenty dramatic enough; it doesn't need to be constantly
inflected like that. Imagine something like YOU CAN COUNT ON ME as
directed by a cut-rate Tarkovsky.

As for the script...

[Those readers who wish to preserve some of life's little mysteries may 
prefer to exit the bedroom at this juncture]

...contrivances abound, and this is the kind of real-world movie that's
seriously damaged by any moment that doesn't make complete logical and
emotional sense. The movie pretty much lost me during the bail hearing,
when Marisa Tomei abruptly changed her story, thereby allowing Tom
Cruise's cousin or whoever he is (the similarity in their profiles is
frickin' uncanny) to return to the streets and torment poor Sissy Spacek.
Never mind that Tomei's testimony is utterly irrelevant to the question
of whether the defendant is a flight risk (they seemed to have jumped
ahead to the trial proper)[*] -- there's no way in hell that she'd ever 
have given the police the wrong impression in the first place. Had she
claimed to have witnessed the killing, she would have been grilled
mercilessly about every possible detail; there's simply no way that she
could have "inadvertently" muddied the waters. Nor are we given any
plausible reason why she would deliberately lie (or why, if she did lie,
she wouldn't simply stick to her false story). It's a screenwriter's
convenience, pure and simple, and that's the last thing you want in a
movie that's striving for ultra-realism.

And then there's the ending, which I just didn't buy...though I'll
concede that this is a point upon which reasonable people might differ.
Didn't buy that Wilkinson would do it; didn't buy that his buddy would
risk his own future to help out; didn't buy that Mapother would be dumb
enough to fall for the we'll-get-you-to-the-airport-later routine. It
all felt painfully contrived, merely a way to goose the audience. (I had
much the same response to the moment where Spacek viciously slaps the
apologetic Tomei -- it felt like a clever writer's notion of the way that
someone might behave in that situation.)

That said (yeah, yeah)[**], the film does have many fine moments -- the
appearance of the girl selling candy was inspired, for example, even if
the truth-telling session it interrupted was badly overwritten. And
Wilkinson, as I say, is magnificent. I just wish the whole thing hadn't
felt so much like a *movie*, given Field's relentlessly low-key approach.

> Was the cut you saw 134 minutes?

I didn't actually time it -- perhaps Charles did -- but it seemed to be
roughly that length -- certainly not significantly shorter. And I should
note that I admire the film's slow pace in principle/theory. It's
Field's super-portentous *brand* of deliberation that I find irritating.
He should really take a close look at SLING BLADE, mm-hmm.


* [19 Dec: On second viewing, I noticed that the bail hearing was 
immediately followed by a "probable cause hearing" [before a grand jury? 
it's not clear], in which context Tomei's testimony makes much more 
sense. Whether real-life Maine judges say "hey, let's do the probable 
cause hearing today as well, while everybody's here" I leave to the 
attorneys among you; it seems pretty bogus to this layman.]

** [19 Dec: "that said" has become the default transitional phrase in the 
forum where this was originally posted, to the amusement of some]

Scott then posted a long, eloquent response to my objections, of which only the sentences that I chose to bounce my own thoughts off of remain below. Those wanting more of his point of view should mosey over here.

Quoth Scott:

> I loved the film's austerity and pace, because it added enormous 
> gravity to the proceedings [...]

But see, that's the thing: I didn't feel like enormous gravity needed to
be added to these proceedings. They're pretty grave to begin with. All
those slow fades and significant silences function as the dramatic
equivalent of a laugh track; I felt like I was being constantly prodded
to contemplate. A matter of taste, I guess, but this wasn't to mine.

> Though the film had me right from those idyllic opening shots in the
> fields with Nick Stahl and Marisa Tomei, it was that shot that 
> convinced me I was in the hands of a major director. 

Hey, maybe you or Andrew [Johnston] can help me and cbf out here. There's 
no audible dialogue in that opening sequence, is there? Just some
heightened ambient noise, am I right? At the recruited-audience
screening we attended (and that I perjured myself to get into, since
media types are strictly verboten)[*], they stopped the projector near the
end of the sequence and announced that there was a sound problem and that
they were working to correct it. But Charles and I agreed that what we
heard seemed entirely proper, if slightly unusual, and when they
restarted the film there was no discernible difference for the 15 seconds
or so before the sequence ended and the "normal" part of the film kicked
in. So did we experience a technical glitch, or did they not know their
own movie (which wouldn't surprise me)?[**]

Oh, and why start the film with those particular images, given the
direction it's going to take? Seems kinda arbitrary to me.

> Granted, this may be a screenwriter's convenience, but I don't think 
> it's a deal-breaker. The plot holes and contrivances in a film like THE 
> MEXICAN -- which I liked pretty well, BTW -- seem to me far more 
> damaging, because the film is so reliant on the mechanisations of its 
> story to satisfy the audience.

Well, I don't think the plot of THE MEXICAN is very important in the
grand scheme of things (not that the film's scheme of things is all
that grand, really). But never mind that -- I just plain disagree with
your basic thesis. Plot holes and contrivances are *much* more damaging
in a naturalistic, real-world movie than in a high-concept bit of fluff,
even if the latter is more narrative-driven than the former. If you're
aiming for verisimilitude, as Field clearly is, anything that reeks of 
convenience or implausibility is just a killer, at least for me. I can
shrug it off in something like THE MEXICAN, since the movie's clearly not
conforming to reality to begin with; a film like IN THE BEDROOM, on the
other hand, is like a house of cards, ready to collapse at the slightest
misstep. And there's no excuse for not taking the time to work it out so
that everything makes sense both logistically and emotionally.

> IN THE BEDROOM is very much a gearshift movie, P.T. Anderson's term for 
> films like SUNRISE and SOMETHING WILD (and his own BOOGIE NIGHTS) that 
> turn the story on a dime and send you reeling in another direction. 

Yeah, but SOMETHING WILD -- a movie I love -- does it by suddenly
introducing another character midway through. IN THE BEDROOM does it by
having a character we already know quite well do something extremely
unlikely. (At my screening, at least eight people walked out immediately
after Wilkinson shot Mapother, and it clearly wasn't because the violence
was too gruesome or whatnot. The movie just completely lost them at that
moment, and I kind of understood their reaction, though I didn't even
think of abandoning my seat.)

> The girl selling candy is a brilliant touch, totally out of left field 
> yet so authentic and funny. It's a testament to Field's (prodigious) 
> gifts as a filmmaker that he can introduce a moment like that to 
> quietly alter the tenor of the film's big confrontation.

Here we agree. I'll certainly be curious to see what Field does next,
though I'm hoping the next one will be a bit less earnest.


* [19 Dec: You didn't read that.]

** [19 Dec: For the record, we experienced a technical glitch.]