'In the Bedroom' is an Oscar-worthy achievement

by Mark Sweeney | 1/10/02 6:00am

Rare are the films that display such uninhibited emotional power as does Todd Field's new thriller, "In The Bedroom."

The intense view of the emotional and psychological scars left on parents grieving the loss of their only child pulls no punches and leaves the viewer captivated at every turn of the plot.

"In The Bedroom" stars Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson as Ruth and Matt Fowler, whose only son Frank, played by Nick Stahl, is home for the summer before venturing off to architecture school.

Frank, in between his summer trade as a lobster fisherman, is romantically involved with an older woman, portrayed by Marisa Tomei. Tomei's character, Natalie Strout, is separated from her husband Richard -- played by William Mapother (Tom Cruise's cousin) -- with whom she had two sons.

As Frank becomes an integral part of the lives of Natalie and her two young boys, Richard returns in an attempt to win back Natalie. While the two no longer live together, they still remain officially married under Maine law. Richard becomes more incensed toward Natalie and Frank's relationship, and eventually viciously murders Frank right in front of an hysterical Natalie.

However, the real thrust of the movie only begins at this point. The profile of Ruth and Matt Fowler in mourning is so engrossing and forceful that the viewer almost forgets the early action.

The central reason "In The Bedroom" is such a great success stems from terrific acting across the board. Stahl is affable as a love-stricken college student. Mapother is a perfect villain, as his mere presence on screen captivates the audience.

Tomei is also very good in her role as Frank's alluring love interest, putting together a commendable down-to-earth performance and constructing a believable character in her vastly different pre-tragedy and post-tragedy states of mind. Additionally, William Wise shines as Matt Fowler's veteran buddy, Willis.

However, the indisputable stars of the movie are Spacek and Wilkinson. Their performances have "Oscar nomination" written all over them.

Spacek, as a mild mannered music teacher, and Wilkinson, a doctor, are pleasant as parents who debate inconsequentially over their son's love life and lead a normal small-town life. Their son's brutal death, however, leaves their existences greatly altered.

The viewer gets a candid view into the battered psyche of Ruth and Matt.

In many of the scenes immediately succeeding the murder scene, Spacek and Wilkinson carry an intensely painful tone without uttering a single word of dialogue. Whether it is Ruth watching late-night television or Matt walking through his departed son's bedroom, the emotionally charged performances make the movie that much more powerful.

Todd Field makes his amazingly proficient directorial debut with the movie. Clocking in at two hours and 10 minutes, the plot unwinds at a pace that never feels rushed but still manages to keep the audience highly interested.

Shot in a quaint town in Maine, the calming backdrop contrasts with the complete upheaval going on within the characters.

Early in the film, at a perfectly carefree barbeque, there is a shot with Ruth and Matt talking unconcernedly while watching a tense conversation between Frank, Natalie and Richard. Later, after the murder, when a gradually recovering Ruth makes a brief accidental encounter with Richard in a market, the split second where they make eye contact is a shockingly powerful moment.

The plot and dialogue manages to keep up quite well with the outstanding acting, as the latter portion of the film is fraught with intriguing twists and telling character development.

The contrasting ways in which Matt and Ruth deal with the loss provide for an ever-increasingly apparent dichotomy in personalities in the seemingly blissful marriage. The ending comes along nicely with an unhurried but surprising finale.

Based on Andre Dubus's short story "Killings," "In The Bedroom" is a first-rate drama not to be missed. While it moves at a relatively slow pace and is not replete with the shock values common to other thrillers, the exceptional acting in itself makes this a great film to watch.