- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 26, 2001

''In the Bedroom" alludes more to psychological intimacy with ominous undercurrents than physical intimacy with frolicsome or pleasurable connotations. The source material, a story by Andre Dubus, was titled "Killers." In context, the word is saturated with irony, but it does seem more to the point. Adapted and directed by Todd Field, the movie has emerged as a year-end critical favorite. Co-stars Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson have acquired an early Academy Awards boost by being chosen best actress and actor by the New York Film Critics Circle.
The performances remain impeccable, but within a framework that becomes treacherous. Mr. Field and his cast make a persuasive case for empathy until the plot administers a fatal sucker punch, transforming an account of loss and grief that appears admirably banal and inconsolable into a devious fable of vengeance that suggests "Death Wish" revamped for nice people.
The nice people in question are Mr. Wilkinson as physician Matt Fowler and Miss Spacek as high school music teacher Ruth Fowler. The couple live in a small coastal town in Maine. Their only child, Nick Stahl as Frank Fowler, is home for the summer, working on a lobster boat and anticipating graduate school in architecture. The cloud on the horizon is his love affair with a local woman, Natalie Strout (Marisa Tomei). About a decade older than her student prince, Natalie is the mother of two little boys and is estranged from her husband, Richard (William Mapother), still seething and menacing.
The elder Fowlers never quite articulate their misgivings about the situation. To be precise, the mother begins to but is rebuffed by the son. The father, while perceiving the potential for trouble from Richard, also takes a sneaky vicarious pride in the evident seductive appeal of his boy. Later, when their lives seem to be falling apart, Ruth reveals that she has noticed this little vanity and exploits it as a pretext for resentment and intensified suffering.
Suffice it say that the principal characters suffer a shocking and irreparable loss and that their marriage appears vulnerable in the aftermath.
The Fowlers are transformed from arguably overcivilized and certainly unwary victims into improbably resolute conspirators, intent on exacting a clandestine justice that perhaps will heal profound emotional wounds and perhaps will not. The movie might be defended as simply a hypothetical example of how drastic measures could be endorsed by decent people.
On the other hand, the pretense that the Fowlers can execute a vendetta is something of an insult to the multitudes who never take such a leap of wrath or vanity after being gravely wounded in body or soul. That number includes some small-town members of my own family, forced to weather a gruesome murder decades ago that never lent itself to anything resembling a just or consoling resolution.
Mr. Field could do quite a bit more to authenticate the Fowlers professionally. One barely sees Dr. Fowler on the job, and the camera keeps returning to Mrs. Fowler in such redundant postures of choir rehearsal that it's easy to jump to the conclusion that somebody's record is stuck.
The apprehensive and compassionate tone emphasized in the early part of the movie seems to anticipate a modest act of reprisal: Miss Spacek slapping the face of Miss Tomei when the latter attempts to start a conversation in the wake of their characters' mutual loss.
In some ways, that moment is more shocking than the film's two conspicuous blood-spattered episodes.
The resort-to-vengeance myth also obscures the deeper grievances that tragedies tend to dredge up, notably the reminder that life is perversely unfair and seems to insist on proliferating in countless ways even if your own heart is breaking.
For a while "In the Bedroom" appears to appreciate sorrows that can't be remedied promptly or permanently. Overshooting that quality of perception turns the movie into the sort of tear-jerker that grows too grotesque to humor.

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