“Over 90 critics nationwide agree In the Bedroom is ONE OF THE BEST PICTURES OF THE YEAR!” trumpets a Miramax full-page ad in The New York Times – and that was before Sissy Spacek copped a Golden Globe best- actress award for her performance in this film. But if you happened to scan the lineup of tributes in that advertisement, as well as prior and subsequent ads, and then came away confused, don’t blame yourself.
On the one hand, you would have encountered accolades such as: “relevant . . . rooted in a profound understanding of humanity” (The New York Observer), ” . . . exquisitely rendered emotional truth” (Time Magazine), “[p]hrase by phrase, image by image . . . an astonishingly rich work . . . undeniably seductive!” and “… artful depiction of family tragedy …” (The New York Times”) “… it sneaks up on you … (Chicago Tribune) … two very enthusiastic thumbs up!” (guess who?)
If you see the movie, you may decide, as I did, that In the Bedroom is itself contradictory – a hybrid phenomenon, and a not very satisfying one at that – depending, of course, on your tolerance for movies which promise one thing and deliver another.
I’ll admit up front that the odd collection of accolades was part of the reason I put In the Bedroom on my must-see list (Roger Ebert’s eager thumbs-up notwithstanding – usually a surefire way to know in advance I won’t like a given movie). But curious to see for myself what the fuss was all about, I was further persuaded by a rave from one of my favorite reviewers, a person whose opinion I invariably respect even when we part company on the merits of a film. One sentence in particular grabbed me: “Director [Todd] Field . . . paces the story with a subtlety and a build that makes its two hours and ten minutes go by with the tightness of a much shorter film.” Well, hey, I’m all for subtlety and, by implication here, a well-paced – one might even say, a tightly paced – drama. By the time I arrived at the movie theater, curiosity had given way to anticipation.
Fifteen minutes into the film, I was mildly engaged in what promised to be an interesting setup that was, any second now, about to slip into a gut-wrenching, conflict-filled family drama. Roughly half an hour later, I was still waiting for the promised setup to ignite – even as I tuned into the sound effects to my right: my husband, slip- ping into the twisting-in-the-seat routine that signals acute boredom.
Patting his hand in commiseration, I found myself remembering something Ayn Rand had said during a conversation about the construction of a novel. Dostoyevsky (whom Ms. Rand admired) had this maddening technique, she told me, of creating a suspenseful situation, then taking a long time to get to the point or introduce the new character he’d been teasing us about. He’d pull this novelistic stunt most often when the reader was anxious to get on with it. Finding myself in this very predicament, I actually thought there was hope for In the Bedroom.
It was a guilt-tinged hope, I’ll admit. Here we have this adorably sweet, hugely naive, brilliant architect- to-be dragging out his summer-before- college romance with a pretty older gal whose goal in life is security for her and the kids and whose schizi, physically abusive, wildly jealous, estranged husband isn’t just a time bomb waiting to go off – the creep is a grenade with the pin already pulled! The situation is obvious practically from the first fade-in, but that doesn’t lessen the guilt trip – I mean, how would you feel, rooting for the nice young man’s death just to get the story back on track?
I recalled the Times’ giddy admiration of the movie’s richness. The bit about “phrase by phrase” and “image by image” took on new meaning: a virtual pileup of talk, much of it unimportant, that stalled the promise of action to come. As I felt myself drowning in seemingly endless picturesque images of a lobster town in Maine, I thought of another line from my friend’s movie review. He said that actor-turned-first- time director Field “sets up with cool understatement the elements that make up the fabric of everyday living in a happy, well-adjusted family until the harsh light of tragedy plunges them into bitterness.” There was plenty of fabric, all right. I felt smothered in it as director Field zoomed in on this or that transparently significant moment, all the while feeding in a lot of meaningless detail, while I waited with growing impatience for the harsh light of “until.”
As for all that subtlety and understatement, I found it tedious and shamelessly repetitive. It led me to think that this neophyte director was either too undisciplined to yank himself away from the scenic small town
Fifteen minutes into the film I was. engaged, awaiting a gut-wrenching, conflict-filled family drama. Half an hour later, I was still waiting.
ambiance, or that he hadn’t the faintest idea how to turn a selective focus on it and use sense of place only long enough to enhance his story. And please don’t tell me that’s how we perceive real-life – chock full of all the nitty-gritty details. Not unless you first pass the following test.
Pop into the gorgeous lobby of a deluxe hotel full of eye-catching, expensive trappings. Or into one of those charming eclectic antique shops that boasts everything from china dolls to ancient sewing machines. Or hurry on over to a wedding reception full of music and food and friends who are expecting you. Or . . . you get the idea. Now tell me whether you looked at every single object in sight. More likely, you singled out the lobby’s crimson velvet tasseled drapes . . . the Art Deco chandeliers . . . the green marble floor. Spotted the Raggedy Ann propped up on one of the shop’s dusty overcrowded shelves . . . relived a moment out of your childhood – and, oh, that darling hen-shaped votive candle! Did a quick survey of the bride- love that lace mantilla! – raised an eyebrow at the long-fingered blond guy who was about to blow you away with his trombone … cut to a Baccarat glass bowl heaped with shrimp – how long before it runs out? – spied Maggie and Lynn both decked out in mauve silk . . . and not looking the least bit·peeved with one another.
Whatever you noticed, you didn’t notice everything.
Resting my case, I return to the big screen.. I figure, with a suppressed sigh, that with In the Bedroom I’m stuck with pure naturalism from the first reel to the last. Oh, not the kind of natural- ism that consists of moody vignettes and scattered incidents, beginning and ending nowhere. In the Bedroom is pre- dominantly about characterization at the complete expense of plot, but it does at least purport to have a story –
a purposeful direction, if you will – even if the events follow one another only in a temporal sense and not in the kind of logical sequence that signals plot. I tell myself that the family trag- edybeing depicted, though building at a snail’s pace, is interspersed with a number of arresting and exceedingly well-acted interludes. But this movie has been stripped of real drama..
I am reminded of another family tragedy – one which Ayn Rand had brought up in our conversation about novel construction: the case of Romeo and Juliet. “To have a logical progression, you must first have a common dramatic element. Look at it in three steps,” she counseled. “Step one: love at first sight. Step two: marriage. The common element is the family feud. It infuses steps one and two with drama and builds in a logical progression to an inevitable question – to step three: Will they be happy?” In other words, “plot” events arise out of preceding events, whereas with ” naturalistic” events, they mayor may not be purposeless (events in In the Bedroom are not), but they won’t be necessitated by preceding events, either.
Ms. Rand had a lot more to say about naturalism on that memorable occasion. I already knew, of course, that instead of dealing in essentials, naturalism is laced with surface details. I knew the overall pattern of the literature – loose stories told with diffuse events whose purpose is to present or influence characters, often with long passages delineating inner feelings and thoughts, while action, if there is any, is virtually suspended.
But what I hadn’t realized was the degree to which many writers (and filmmakers) engage in what Ms. Rand called “crossbreeding” between the schools of Naturalism and her own Romantic Realism.
Warning against classifying naturalistic writers too rigidly – “you have to judge each story by essentials because no single story is without elements of both schools,” she praised John O’Hara for his “good psychological studies” that often were “heartbreaking, sadly malevolent-universe stories illustrating some aspect of a character or a psychological process or even summing up a whole life in one incident.” Very eloquent on their own terms, O’Hara’s stories, she observed, though not always naturalistic, and not romantic either. They were nonetheless purposeful and went “deep.” The “enormously overrated” John Steinbeck, on the other hand, was “pure naturalism – and pretentious at that.” For burning social issues, you were far better off with Emile Zola.
When I asked for more examples, she ticked off Tolstoy, Chekov, Henry James, Fitzgerald – “all naturalists who selected intellectuals or upper
I hadn’t realized the degree to which many filmmakers engage in whatAynRandcalled “cross-breeding” between the schools of Naturalism and her own Romantic Realism.
classes for their subjects but treated them naturalistically.” Another cross- breeder was Budd Schulberg (What Makes Sammy Run), whom she regarded as “somewhat talented, with a certain sense of drama and the ability to select naturalistic types while presenting his collective portraits quite skillfully.” In contrast, Dostoyevsky, although characterization-oriented, wrote on the romanticist method, using purposeful events to show you the characterization.
As I exchanged goodbyes with Ms. Rand and stepped into the hallway of her apartment house, I distinctly remembered the color of the’ dress she wore – black – but not much else about it; the way her glasses – colorless frames – would slip from time to time, and her impatient automatic gesture of pushing them up with no break in the conversation; those eloquent hand gestures as she emphasized a point. That was about it in the physical details department. Selective focus wins again.
I drag my focus back to In the Bedroom and wait to discover whether this adaptation of a short story will turn out to be start-to-finish naturalism or – hope springing eternal – whether I’ll luck out and see it metamorphose into a not half-bad example of crossbreeding. My friend’s review, after describing the main characters as a small town doctor – “local boy who has grown up and stayed put” – and his wife Ruth, a music teacher at the local school, had gone on to write: “But with Frank’s [their son’s] murder, all the suppressed concerns and resentments that went unnoticed when they were happy fester into open sores. And with the realization that his killer, the son of the town’s leading family, will probably walk, the anger grows – anger at the murderer, at the system, at the town, at Natalie [son’s girlfriend], at each other, and at themselves.” I await the dramatic payoff of such key events, in the form of some egregious action on the part of this leading family. The patriarch, maybe, making threats or pulling strings? An outrageous outburst in court? A down-and-dirty revelation about the legal justice system?
I see none of the above. What should have tipped me off was that director Field already opted out of shooting a dramatically obligatory scene: the doctor breaking the horrific news to his wife that their son has just been murdered. What we get is Matt standing in a doorway watching the oblivious Ruth at choir practice – and suddenly we’re back at the house and coping. I felt cheated at this demonstration of directorial understatement. And I’m willing to bet that most of the folks who are singing the praises of this movie, if they stopped to think about it, would feel cheated, too.
I was reminded of the time when Ayn Rand and I took in a Museum of Modern Art presentation of a silent screen version of Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs, walking out after intermission because, as a disgusted Ms. Rand pointed out, the director “deliberately chose not to include the most crucial and dramatic turning points in Hugo’s novel.”
But now, watching In the Bedroom, I barely have enough time to register my frustration when the story veers off in a totally unexpected direction. I see where we’re headed, but denial sets in. I simply refuse to believe the form of
A disgusted Ms. Rand pointed out that the director “deliberately chose not to include the most crucial and dramatic turning points in Hugo’s novel.”
crossbreeding this movie is about to unload on me – until I recall the Rolling Stone accolade: ” A thriller!” Very demanding medium, thrillers. Suspension of disbelief is a necessity. But thanks to director Field’s preoccupation with characterization, by now I know these characters too well, thank you very much, even to begin to take seriously the father’s rapid descent from good-natured, mild-mannered, controversy-avoiding, even obsequious milquetoast to vigilante killer, any more than I can accept this eager-to-please, don’t-rock-the-boat mother’s transformation into a lethal Lady Macbethish co-conspirator. Top it all off with the father’s true blue best friend not only aiding and abetting, but literally getting his hands dirty …
er, bloody (my husband’s acerbic aside, “Well, what are friends for?”), and you have an acute case of lack of good judgment on the part of director Field, who apparently was laboring under the impression that frustration and a dollop of rage was all he needed to turn his family drama into a nair thriller.
Another Field comes immediately to mind, first name Sally. Sally Field is proof positive that a more or less conventional mother and sturdy member of the community, a woman who can’t kill a moth, let alone a man, can turn into a convincing vigilante and go gunning for the murderer of her daughter. Why? Because director John Schlesinger guided his screenwriting team into a step-by-step, totally plausible case for how maternal frustration and rage can erupt into violence – yes, even in Pacific Palisades.
I can shamelessly praise Schlesinger’s brilliant achievement in Paramount’s Eye for an Eye, a film based on my novel of the same name, because I had nothing to. do with the movie except for cashing a check and getting periodic courtesy reports from the producer. In point of fact, Schlesinger later confessed to me that he’d never even read the book. But Schlesinger’s direction of Sally Field and Kiefer Sutherland, playing the psychopathic killer, was memorable – eliciting superb performances from his stars and the rest of his excellent cast.
So shouldn’t Todd Field be credited, at least, for eliciting superb performances out of Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson and the rest of his excellent cast? Up to a point, maybe. Wilkinson’s nuanced performance throughout was undeniably brilliant, and Marisa Tomei, as the murdered son’s lover, did a fantastic acting job ~ the best in her career. But the eminently likable, always impressive, award-winning Ms. Spacek (when is the lady not brilliant?) was short-changed. No matter how talented an actress may be, she still needs script and directorial opportunities to shine, if you will. Director Field provided Spacek with precious few of. those. So underplayed was her role – as written and directed, I hasten to add – that her acting throughout much of the movie consisted of looking uptight, being rude or abrupt, furiously smoking Marlboros, and putting on a stiff upper lip for friends and well-wishers. Only during the climactic explosion between the wife and husband was she given the opportunity to rise to brilliance.
How to explain, in her case, the Golden Globe and, undoubtedly, the Oscar to come? I submit that critics and viewers generally feel extremely empathetic toward the character she plays, the horrific experience she’s forced to endure, and, in the end, her tragic flaw: grieving mother acquiesces in a cold-blooded premeditated murder. People, especially critics, adore tragically flawed characters.
By the same token, those who usually sneer at well-plotted drama, let alone melodrama, will go to the length, as some critics have, of labeling this family-tragedy-turned-melodrama as a II classic.” Not in my book. Not in the same breath with Romeo and Juliet.