Insufficient Evidence

I don't understand why everybody is making such a fuss
over In the Bedroom, Todd Field's first feature-length movie. The film has a few
surprisingly good moments, but these are vastly outweighed by its creakinesses,
its unlikelihoods, and its forced, false emotions. It deals with a subject--the
murder of a beloved only child--that is almost destined to fail if it does not
rise uncannily above itself, and given this choice, In the Bedroom opts
repeatedly for failure. That it should do so is comprehensible and perhaps even
honorable (as ambitious failures are often honorable), but it does not make for a
coherent, aesthetically satisfying, emotionally rewarding artistic experience.

In the Bedroom is actually three movies bundled into one, and like its
youthful hero, each of the three gets cut off in its prime. First there is the
Maine-local-color movie, a portrait of the seaside town of Camden, with
undertones of harshness and potential violence shimmering through the wealth of
natural beauty. This segment introduces us to Frank Fowler, a handsome, engaging,
promising young architecture student appealingly played by Nick Stahl; his
parents, a doctor (Tom Wilkinson) and a music teacher (Sissy Spacek); his
girlfriend, Natalie (Marisa Tomei), a slightly older woman with two young boys
from a former marriage; and her ex-husband, a threatening nogoodnik who happens
to be the scion of the town's wealthiest family, owners of the local fishery. It
also introduces us to a range of supporting characters and to the town of Camden
itself.

But already one senses something false here. If you've ever seen Frederick
Wiseman's terrific documentary Belfast, Maine, you'll recognize that Field's
version of a small Maine town is a sanitized, Hollywoodized portrayal, focusing
almost completely on the generically American upper-middle-class types and
ignoring the very people who give such towns their rich, strange, and sometimes
frightening local character. The film's verisimilitude is not helped by the fact
that virtually none of the actors have mastered the distinctive regional accents
of Maine. Marisa Tomei is especially badly miscast: She sounds, indeed, like a
local girl, but her locale is audibly Brooklyn, and when she tries to do
something approaching a down-east inflection, it comes out instead as Chico
Marx. ("I love-a you," she tells Frank in one of their early scenes together.) I
also thought it odd that her ex-husband, who is supposed to come from a very rich
family, spoke with the lowest regional accent--but then, class is one of the
subjects on which In the Bedroom seems distinctly unclear.

Sex is another. Repeatedly, the movie tells us that the female of the species
is bad news. During a fishing episode that provides the movie's title, wise old
Dr. Fowler tells one of Natalie's young sons that the lady lobster is the one to
watch out for, since what happens "In the Bedroom" is likely to cost the
competing males a limb or two, at the very least. This little nugget sets us up
for movie number two, the one that begins when Thuggish Ex-Husband shoots Lovable
Young Frank through the eye. (I must admit that at this point, with the loss of
the only character I cared anything about, my interest in the film diminished
severely. If it had been a better movie--if it had been even half as good, for
instance, as Pedro Almodóvar's All About My Mother--my attachment to the
dead boy could have worked in the film's favor. But it never had any hopes of
being that good.)

The middle section of In the Bedroom has been widely praised as an astute,
sensitive, moving portrait of parental grief. No description could be more
inaccurate. Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek are not just unconvincing in the roles
of bereaved parents; they are pretty much incomprehensible. Especially in the
case of Spacek (whose youthful gutsiness has hardened into a kind of taut, dry
absence of warmth), I couldn't figure out whether we were supposed to be watching
Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People or the grieving mother in All About My
Mother
--whether the mother, that is, was supposed to be a monster or a
sympathetic victim. The movie itself can't figure this out, and the director
isn't giving his actors any hints. Is Mrs. Fowler just another lady lobster,
responsible for her son's flight to an equally dangerous other woman? (This is
the accusation her husband levels in a moment of subsequently retracted rage.) Or
is she a martyr to a small-town culture which takes everything she cares about
away from her--even, eventually, her capacity to grieve for her son? Both
possibilities are suggested, but neither is enacted to any persuasive degree.

In the end, we are simply transferred over to movie number three: a revenge
drama in thriller mode, complete with nighttime killing, disposal of body, and
close call near a police station. But nothing comes of this plot at all--it ends
in midstream, just like the other two, before we can even begin to imagine
whether Frank's parents will ultimately have to pay for the vigilante murder of
their son's killer. It's barely credible that two mildmannered people could be
driven crazy enough by grief to engage in this sort of plotted-out revenge. But
the movie pushes us too far when it asks us to believe that Dr. Fowler's best
friend, a solidly sane citizen, would also have participated in the crime. Here
we have entered Shirley Jackson territory: the small town as killing machine.
Perhaps only a nation in the throes of its own ongoing revenge tragedy could be
expected to swallow this as a plot resolution.

I understand all the fuss about Gosford Park (you have only to
read the cast list to do that), but I certainly don't agree with it. This is
low-level Robert Altman, Altman on vacation, and not a terribly fun vacation at
that.

I get the joke on the classic upstairs-downstairs plot; in this version,
all the downstairs people are recognizable individuals, whereas we have trouble
telling the upstairs twits apart. And I get the joke on the classic country-house
murder mystery, complete with stupid police inspector--though Peter Sellers was
always far funnier than Stephen Fry is here. The problem is, I can't see much
difference between the movies being satirized and the movie that is satirizing
them.

Perhaps there are a few people left in the world who do not recognize the
long-lost-orphan plot when it first rears its hoary head, and who are not
excessively familiar with the concept of a body that has been murdered twice--and
if so, they must be the people who are yukking it up in the audience. To them I
say: You are not watching enough trash if you can mistake this for a high-class
movie.

As for the rest of you, you may want to go to Gosford Park for Maggie Smith's
inimitably comic line readings, Emily Watson's genuinely appealing portrayal of a
maid, and a lot of interesting esoterica on the mechanisms of service in a great
house circa 1932. But don't go expecting Nashville or Short Cuts. That Altman is
still away on vacation.

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