Unlike the similarly themed The Son’s Room (also a Miramax release), Todd Field’s In the Bedroom tackles grief with nary a hint of weepy melodrama when a relatively austere Maine couple is forced to cope with sudden death of their son. Dr. Matt Fowler (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife Ruth (Sissy Spacek) are a seemingly upper-middle-class couple. Field’s use of language is as sophisticated as his visceral direction—doorways and windows become emotional barriers between lives while a swing set and a copy of Highlights magazine become fabulous signifiers of lost youths. Their son Frank (Nick Stahl) carries on with a local unmarried woman, Natalie (Marisa Tomei), whose husband, Richard Strout (William Mapother), exploits his wealthy family name to his advantage.
Field takes his time with the Fowlers’ pain, letting it coagulate and fester into a complex mess of pent-up resentment. Frank, a budding architect, is intrigued by a particular home design where common rooms are constructed between adult and child bedrooms; families would spill into this center, forced to communicate with one other. While Frank’s fascination with architecture is emotionally informed, it’s never voiced or forced; it’s obvious to the careful spectator, which makes Field’s direction throughout the film so subtle yet intense. As the film progresses, the architecture of the Fowler home becomes cumbersome and begins to call attention to itself: windows and doors begin to personify Matt and Ruth’s growing distance; Matt stares at child through a pane of glass; and he and Ruth begin to move through the house as if mice lost in a labyrinthine maze of pent-up emotions.
Much of In the Bedroom’s success comes from Field’s trust in the audience’s ability to grasp the sublimity of Spacek and Wilkinson’s candid performances. Ruth doesn’t have to say a word to evoke her character’s sadness when her friend Katie (Celia Weston) discusses the joy of having grandchildren; for Ruth, there won’t be any grandchildren. Field dares to make pain a selfish thing. Ruth’s gaze suggests a woman less afflicted by death than she is resentful of a husband whose budding medical career prevented them from having more children. More interesting is how Richard’s parole and potential light sentence becomes an attack on Matt and Ruth’s sanity. Richard must be punished, not so much because of his crime but because the Fowlers should never have to bump into him around town.
Even though In the Bedroom’s transformation into a full-fledged thriller may seem like a dubious rhetorical shift, Field’s execution is without hysterics (the film is certainly no Eye for an Eye). Matt’s decisions are desperate yet they’re logical because Field has vigilantly set up the man’s fondness for manipulation. Earlier in the film, Matt catches Frank and Natalie in the house after they’ve had sex. He forces the giddy couple to eat coleslaw while he rejoices in his silent power. The next day, as Matt, Frank and Ruth watch Natalie’s children play in a little league game, Matt rises and tells his wife: “Tell her how you ate enough for two.” Matt may be a master of the double entendre but he’s also a pained victim to the pervasiveness of the Field’s signs. Richard is the son of the town’s most popular seafood supplier so it’s no surprise that the Stout name is a constant reminder of Matt’s loss. From its subdued study of loss to airtight thriller, In the Bedroom’s fascinating lack of closure suggests that grief is eternal.