It took Andre Dubus just eighteen pages to communicate the grief that fills every frame of Todd Field’s two-hours-plus In the Bedroom, a wrenching bit of filmmaking based on Dubus’ short fiction “Killings.” Both story and film tell the same tale in the same solemn and gripping tone — with the same horrific and poignant results.
In a small New England town, a mother and father cope, clumsily and brutally, with crushing heartbreak when their son, off to the promise of college and career, is gunned down by the soon-to-be ex-husband of the boy’s lover. In Dubus’ story, the killing comes early; the tale begins at the funeral and leaps back and forth through time, like a bad memory the mind can’t shake. But it’s less a narrative of action than of reaction — how a mother and father manage the unthinkable after so many years of fretting about their children’s safety. The father, Dubus writes, “felt that all the fears he had borne while they were growing up, and all the grief he had been afraid of, had backed up like a huge wave and struck him on the beach and swept him out to sea.” Field’s film allows us to spend a little more time with the son, and as a result it all but drowns us, along with mother and father, in the sorrow.
Director Field, an actor best known for playing Tom Cruise’s piano-playing pal in Eyes Wide Shut, and cowriter Rob Festinger have at once streamlined and fleshed out Dubus’ story. The father is now a doctor rather than a shopkeeper; the parents have one son, not two; the setting is Maine, not Massachusetts. Field and Festinger have taken a stark outline and given its pain full color — in, say, the red-rimmed eyes of a stoic Sissy Spacek as Ruth Fowler, the mother whose woe turns to fury, which in turn gives way to a sane sort of madness.
As the film begins, Matt Fowler (Tom Wilkinson) and wife Ruth are as frisky as new lovers; they tease each other in the kitchen and please each other in the bedroom. Ruth is disquieted by the relationship their son Frank (Bully‘s Nick Stahl) has begun with Natalie (Marisa Tomei, finally giving a performance worthy of her Oscar), a young mother of two little boys who is not yet divorced from Richard Strout (William Mapother, Tom Cruise’s cousin). Matt, a lifelong resident of Camden who has become the town’s doctor, is more understanding — perhaps because he lives vicariously through his son, who is everything the father was and is no longer: taut, vibrant, his whole life ahead of him (and, likely, away from Maine).
But such promise is dashed in a moment of rage: Richard, with a single gunshot, murders Frank and, in effect, an entire family. Matt and Ruth, so loving at first, grow cold and incommunicative afterward — as though they blame themselves and each other with equal ferocity. Matt begins drinking too much, Ruth starts chain-smoking — anything to keep from having to talk about what happened. And when they do speak to each other, it’s with dialogue and delivery so real it slices the heart; Spacek and Wilkinson, sputtering and shouting through tears of culpability, make us feel like voyeurs.
In the Bedroom can be overwhelming. Field allows no humor, no escape from the tension. The Fowlers’ misery slowly becomes ours. If Dubus’ work resembled some sort of literary therapy session, then Field’s version requires grief counseling. It is, at times, that devastating.