Sweet Sorrow 

*In the Bedroom (R)

Director Todd Field's debut feature film quietly takes your heart and squeezes it with an iron fist. Based on the late Andre Dubus' chilly short story, "Killings," In the Bedroom maintains much of the story's original dialogue and lovingly recreates the coast of Maine setting. But Field, who also wrote the screenplay, takes the action of Dubus' story and reverses it so that we don't really know where we're going until we get there. And once we've arrived, it feels hauntingly like home.

The story begins with Frank (Nick Stahl), a boyish college-bound native, frolicking in the grass with his lover, 30-ish Natalie (Marisa Tomei). The camera tells us how much they love it there in Maine as it focuses from ground level on the waving green grass and then on the leaves of the craggy old tree overhead.

Matt and Ruth Fowler (Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek), the town doctor and the high school choral director, are Frank's adoring parents, cautiously watching from the sidelines as he is wooed by Natalie. Nick assures his worried mother that his affair with the still married but legally separated Natalie is a summer thing, and Matt vicariously enjoys the spectacle of youthful lust while nurturing a growing affection for Natalie's two cute little boys.

Just as the viewer settles in and is lulled by this New England idyll, a violent act, committed by Natalie's husband Richard (William Mapother), cracks the movie open and the emotional trajectory changes. Parental grief and loss take center stage, more effectively and more thoroughly, possibly, than in any American film since The Sweet Hereafter. A second dramatic turn occurs when the film takes on the aspects of a thriller, but our attention is never diverted from the central construct of the film -- the damaged marriage of Ruth and Matt, fraught with emotional land mines.

Field, who was a friend of Dubus and displays remarkable trust in the material, gracefully hands his movie over to the actors. Stahl is just the right mix of hormonal glee and youthful innocence; Tomei is tone perfect as the working-class young mother trying to put a life together; Mapother makes your skin crawl, especially when he tries to be friendly or conciliatory.

But In the Bedroom is Wilkinson's and Spacek's film. Their performances are triumphs of subtlety and depth. The close-up of Spacek's blotched, lined face, devoid of makeup, as she grieves in the film's mid-section is unforgettable in the power of its sorrow. Wilkinson's depiction of partnership with his only son sings, and his quiet but desperate loss feels completely authentic.

In the Bedroom moves slowly with carefully measured scenes and each moment draws the viewer a little closer to capture. By the end, there's no escaping the stark emotional impact of the journey.


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