January 24, 2002

Cure for Insomnia

Print More

Few films successfully illustrate the unrelenting, harsh reality of family anguish. Sam Mendes’ American Beauty did it dynamically in 1999, to rave reviews. And now, Todd Field attempts the same with his new film In the Bedroom, a Golden Globe nominee for Best Drama. Here he attempts to showcase the misery, confusion, and fragility of a family that becomes absorbed with frustration and loss. While the acting performances are subtle and powerful, the film’s monotony unfortunately detracts from what could have been a much better piece.

The story showcases the casual fishing town of Camden, Maine, the setting for an innocent romance between Frank Fowler (Nick Stahl), a young architect-to-be, and Natalie Strout (Marisa Tomei), a slightly older woman with two children. Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson play Frank’s parents, Ruth and Matt, and their resolve is severely put to the test when Frank is brutally murdered by Natalie’s jealous ex-husband. The film then depicts the understated explosiveness of the parents’ emotions, as they perpetually dwell upon their terrible loss, going so far as helplessly blaming one another.

This premise has undeniable potential, presenting the filmmakers with an opportunity for realism by exploring the tensions of accusations within a suffering family. If this relatively simple idea had been aptly dealt with, Field would have achieved great success. Instead, he approaches the notions of the film with an overwhelming sense of plainness. Long, drawn-out scenes of “loud silence” between Spacek and Wilkinson are initially compelling, but the lack of movement and progression in the middle act produces an uneasy, sluggish effect. Aside from an occasional scene of import, the pace is too deliberately slow, and Field does not need 130 minutes to tell this story.

The final movement of the film presents a twist that will, of course, remain a secret for now. However, moviegoers should agree that Wilkinson awkwardly steps out of his initially complacent character, a content physician who simply wanted the best for his family. His anguish, I am sure, developed a painful impression of empathy from many audiences, but the production of this authentic feeling does not necessarily suggest that the story is successful when judged on a cinematic level.

The performances by the women in the film are certainly impressive. Sissy Spacek’s Golden Globe Award this past Sunday was much deserved, and Marisa Tomei, winner of an Academy Award for My Cousin Vinny, was a pleasant surprise with her unadorned and genuine acting. Tomei, whose grace and innocence was portrayed well, will surely garner acclaim for this role.

While In the Bedroom deals with true family issues of responsibility and repentance, the focus on internalization becomes frustrating. Sometimes sinister and oftentimes troubling, this film’s script was in the right direction. Field’s visualized interpretation of Andre Dubus’ short story will be powerful and appealing for those interested in family conflict and suffering. But the rest of us will understand the messages of the film and appreciate them, while still recognizing that it could have — and should have — been a more developed film.

Archived article by Avash Kalra