More boring than real life, plus you have to pay to get in
Perhaps there’s something in the water. Whatever the cause, whenever an American film director takes on a project with more aesthetic substance than a remake of Ocean’s Eleven, he falls flat on his face.
Latest to take the dive is Todd Field, director of In the Bedroom, which he cowrote with Robert Festinger, from the short story “Killings,” by Andre Dubos. In the Bedroom takes place in the picture-postcard fishing town of Camden, Maine. Gritty opening shots establish the fact that Camden is an old-fashioned class society. The common folk either catch fish or can them at Strout’s cannery. The rich folks are upper-middle-class WASPs, Dr. Matt Fowler and his wife Ruth, plus their golden-boy son, Frank, who’s just out of college. Frank plans to become an architect, but for the summer he’s got a job operating his own lobster boat.
As if life wasn’t cozy enough for Frank already, he’s also got a gorgeous girlfriend, Natalie (Marisa Tomei), a working-class single mom with two kids. He tells his parents it’s just a summer romance, but he’s having so much fun that he’s thinking about blowing off his career for a year or so. That may not be such a good idea, because Natalie doesn’t quite have a divorce yet from sullen hubbie Richard Strout (William Mapother), son of the town millionaire. Richard, who clearly could kick little Frankie’s ass with his big toe, hasn’t quite settled on the divorce, and he especially hasn’t settled on Frankie humping his old lady. Mom and Dad, especially Mom, aren’t too happy with the arrangement either, but Frank assures them that everything’s copacetic, though clearly it isn’t.
Richard starts harassing Natalie, more and more aggressively. Frank steps in the middle and Richard shoots and kills him. At first, the Fowlers assume that Richard is going away for life, but when it appears that 1) he’s going to be out on bail for a year or so before even going to trial, and 2) since no one witnessed the killing, he probably won’t get a sentence more severe than five-to-fifteen for manslaughter, the long-repressed resentments between the Fowlers finally boil over. In a classic confrontation scene, Ruth tells Matt that Frank’s death is his fault, that he took vicarious pleasure in Frank’s affair with Natalie, when he should have forced Frank to back off. Matt replies that it’s Ruth’s fault – “You drove him to her! Nothing he did was ever good enough for you!”
They quickly reconcile, but when Ruth tells Matt that she can’t endure seeing Richard around town – “He was smiling at me!” – Matt concocts and executes Richard’s murder with working-class buddy Willis Grinnel (William Wise), making it look as though Richard has jumped bail. (And we’re more or less encouraged to believe that Matt and Willis are going to get away with it.)
In the Bedroom is explicitly anti-Hollywood in that it’s about “real life.” The people in the film don’t look cool,1 nor do they talk cool. Field shoots the film in a semi-documentary (really pseudo-documentary) style similar to Robert Altman’s, with lots of “dead air” on the soundtrack; static, dead-on camera angles; and scenes that tail off with no dramatic resolution, “just like real life.”
But making a film undramatic doesn’t make it “real.” A film, inescapably, is an artifact if not a work of art, and pretending that it isn’t is mere affectation. A film, even a documentary, without a soundtrack is far more manipulative than a film with one, because the director is pretending that he’s just showing us what really happened, when in fact everything we see was his choice.
The film also stumbles over the fact that “real-life people,” particularly New England WASPs, just don’t commit murder very often. The pieces of the plot don’t fit together very well, and Field cheats terribly in pretending that they do.
Consider Natalie, a single mother pushing thirty, working as a cashier, with two kids, separated from a surly, vengeful husband who doesn’t want to give up control of “his” family. Why would – how could – a woman in such a stressful position throw herself into a “no commitments, just really great sex” relationship with a younger man that will end “whenever”? Natalie is the sort of character Hollywood loves to love, a working-class single mom. Not only that, she’s having an affair with a younger man!2 Such a woman is above criticism, but it’s hard to believe she’s real.
And consider Richard. Although we’re told he’s a rich boy, he’s portrayed as a working-class tough guy, the sort of wife-beating trailer trash Hollywood loves to hate. He tries to impress Natalie by bragging about his new truck. When he gets out on bail he gets a job as a bartender. If he really were rich, why would he be married to Natalie in the first place?
And consider Frank. How stupid, and how selfish, can he be? How can he believe that stepping in the middle of a messy divorce can be “just a summer romance”? He seems to believe that he’s such a fantastic guy that he’s fulfilling any responsibility he could have to Natalie just by screwing her.3
Field also struggles with his big confrontation scene. Confrontation scenes are probably the biggest cliché in all of drama, but they can work if handled properly.4 In the Bedroom’s doesn’t work, in large part because Ruth and Matt don’t dredge up any deep, festering resentments. The charges they hurl at one another are curiously disconnected from the actual events of the plot. Despite what Ruth says, Frank went after Natalie because he wanted to, not because Matt did. And Matt’s accusations seem to come from another picture. Frank is so totally together that he doesn’t have issues with anyone, not even his mother. He can’t be the product of his parents’ failures because he’s perfect. Frank got himself killed because he was so self-satisfied he couldn’t imagine anyone not wanting him to have something he wanted.
With all its earnestness, Matt’s revenge killing of Richard is pure gimmick, right out of modern “adult” television, notably Hill Street Blues, which more or less invented the genre.5 Invariably, we see a repulsive killer on the verge of getting away with murder, thanks to some trivial legal technicality. We’re outraged, and want to take the law into our own hands. Then, one of the characters does it for us. The show gets points for realism (the system doesn’t work), and the audience gets the satisfaction of seeing the bad guy get wasted.
But the real kicker for In the Bedroom is not the second murder but the aftermath. Once the murder is done, Matt and Ruth go back to their old repressed selves. Lying in bed, Matt refuses to talk about his emotions, rolling away from Ruth to fall asleep. She rushes out into the kitchen to prepare him a meal, yelling questions that he can’t hear and waiting for answers that he doesn’t give. Not a bad ending, really, but it’s on the wrong film.
Unmasking the hypocrisies of small-town life is a favorite Hollywood occupation. In the Bedroom isn’t a glitzy fraud like American Beauty, and it isn’t nearly as clumsy and amateurish as You Can Count on Me. But a film aspiring to portray “real life” needs more than affectation, ugly people, and a “hopeless” ending to do the job.6
- Field has, in fact, assembled some of the ugliest people you’re ever going to see in a movie. One of Dr. Fowler’s patients, a sad old man with a bulbous nose and pathetically collapsed face, is so ugly that it’s a violation of his privacy just to look at him. The point, I think, is that Frank is the one touch of youth and beauty in the Fowlers’ lives. If so, Field certainly drives it home. [↩]
- Hollywood is particularly fond of the older woman/younger man thing because it helps conceal the fact that half the relationships in Tinsel Town are of the dirty old mogul/sexy young babe variety. [↩]
- He never offers her money, of course. That would be “wrong.” [↩]
- Classic examples are Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962) and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). [↩]
- Hill Street’s patented blend of liberal homilies, violence, black humor, and kinky sex has been remixed endlessly in shows ranging from NYPD Blue to Ally McBeal. [↩]
- In addition to these major crimes, Field comes up with a number of minor but persistent misdemeanors. For some reason, he’s a passionate devotee of the “extreme closeup” school of cinema. Virtually any mechanical object, be it pulley, winch, lawnmower, or traffic light, is going to be shoved in our face before the film is over. If it makes noise, so much the better, because we’re going to hear it too. At one point, when Natalie fires up her cash register in the Valu-mart, it sounds like a Briggs & Stratton two-stroke. [↩]