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May 8, 2008 |

David Mamet, Eric Bogosian, Alexander Payne, and a million other misanthropic storytellers in film and out are all obsessed with familiar literary conceits regarding the middle-class and their American equivalent in Suburbia. That this particular conceit is a savage pessimism should come as no surprise, but the American angle of it all is truly unique — the rows of identical houses, the violently manicured lawns, the commercial sprawl and asphalt deserts. But worst of all are the people who create them, a people so obsessed with the illusion of purity and plenitude while so hellbent on obscuring the very traits that make them human, ruling a literal empire of artifice. The would-be cultural critics who point their pens and cameras on the American bourgeois insist this glossy sheen covers a subdura of rot and horror. Think of the opening scene in Blue Velvet — the camera leers at a pristine lawnscape before sinking into a layer of munching insects. But satirists, especially weirdoes like Lynch and Todd Solondz, often lack subtlety when brutalizing their subjects. Todd Field has beaten them all by doing the opposite, by pulling us so close to the drama we’re blinded with ambivalence. Few films have been more disturbing, more quietly devastating.

Field’s debut, In the Bedroom, based on an Andre Dubus short story, applies a scalpel to the internal and external horrors of a Maine seaside hamlet. Dr. Matt Fowler (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife, Ruth (Sissy Spacek), live quiet, relatively happy lives, respected in the community as people a bit better than their present stations. Matt is a family practitioner, a man of gentile affability who yearns for everyone to like him, something a family doctor yields easily; he’s generous and na├»ve to a fault. Ruth is a bit more complicated — a former academic and professor, she’s been reduced to pawning her knowledge of Eastern European folk music onto a high school choir, something she probably resents. Theirs is a well-meaning but facile relationship — they’ve long since stopped telling the truth in favor of being nice to one another. And both are somewhat guilty of projecting casual disappointments onto their son, Frank (Nick Stahl).

Frank is a general success story — a bright young kid possessing the self-effacing affability and good looks impossible not to like. His parents, and indeed the rest of the community, adore him. What Frank lacks in brute masculinity he makes up for in sexual prowess; he’s run through a string of girlfriends, but the latest his parents find troubling. Natalie (Marisa Tomei) is a much older, freshly separated (but not divorced) mother of two young sons. Frank is allured by Natalie’s beauty and unassuming nature; Natalie is allured by, well, everything Frank is. It’s easy to see how the relationship would be mutually flattering, but Natalie is probably Frank’s way of rejecting his parents. Ruth thinks the relationship is socially detrimental and will ultimately distract Frank from the architecture school he’s poised to leave for at summer’s end. Matt is concerned as well, but too proud of his son for romancing a woman he and his friends see fit to ogle. Matt beams with pride, even when his son damns him for marching eagerly in his own father’s footsteps.

To complicate matters, Natalie’s not-quite-ex-husband, Richard (William Mapother), lurks in the fringes. If Frank is impossible not to love, Richard is impossible not to hate. He’s the worst kind of man, whose brute anger and stupidity are matched by a slight physical ugliness, drunk with an entitlement so internalized he can’t fathom when others don’t give him what he wants. Natalie has left him, but he barges into her home regularly and harangues her for not wanting him, let alone canoodling with a younger man. Richard represents the brute atavism found in lower-class caricatures; he even says at one point: “No, I don’t change; everything around me changes.” Field hints that class miscegenation is at the heart of this conflict, but only just. Richard’s family wields some power and money, but from a decidedly lower social echelon. In any case, it will only end in Frank’s blood.

And when that end comes, it’s more harrowing than any horror film. Field blankets the entire film with dread, with suggestions of violence both emotional and physical. The middle section of the film, wherein Matt and Ruth confront a grief they’re incapable of dealing with (who would be?), is as troubling as the actual death. The two can’t talk to one another, to console or to blame, as each holds the other responsible for Frank’s death; did Ruth push too hard or Matt not enough? Their marriage suppurates under guilt and resentment, and Field doesn’t sully the atmosphere with actual words, but lets the emotions play in an understatement that mirrors Bergman or Ozu. Ruth wants to reach out to someone, to express the inexpressible. Matt, like so many men, can’t describe what he feels even when he wants to; mostly he tries to pretend nothing has happened. I’ve never seen a portrait of grief to match In the Bedroom’s quiet desperation.

When the words finally arrive, they’re screamed and hissed, the tension erupting from its horrible concealment. And maybe the two can forgive one another, but the sheer injustice of their loss gnaws at them, all the worse when it seems Richard will get off on a lenient manslaughter charge. Matt is galvanized with the masculine drive to fix things somehow, to mend his marriage and avenge their wrong at the same time. And with regards to the middle-class expressing the inexpressible, his options narrow to a grim inevitability.

Field is perhaps guilty of some value judgments — he seems to make it clear that Richard deserves what he gets. But his death, so implicitly yearned-for by character and audience, is nothing to celebrate; it’s as horrible and damning as Frank’s. Revenge might restore the balance Matt and Ruth yearn for, but the damage it will surely wreak on their humanity is truly disturbing. Field has crafted a vision of bourgeois America of devastating darkness — that lower-class crimes of passion will be met with a savagery borne of cruel calculation: which one is really worse? In the Bedroom is a film of horrifying human truths, executed with patience and skill, and all of it should break your fucking heart.

Phillip Stephens is the lead critic and book editor for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR, and wastes his twenties in grad school(s).

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