As a bold counterpoint to things to come, Todd Field's wrenching melodrama In The Bedroom opens with an idyllic shot of young lovers chasing each other around a windswept hillside, a romantic cliché from paperbacks and soap commercials. But as the story winds its way through an inexorably tragic series of events, the image gains surprising resonance, like the last gasp of fresh air before the throat begins to swell shut. Best known for his subtle, self-effacing work as a character actor in Victor Nunez's Ruby In Paradise and Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, Field makes his directorial debut with the assurance and dramatic force of a born filmmaker. Divided into three distinct acts, each punctuated by a startling shift in tenor, In The Bedroom was based in part on an Andre Dubus short story, which constitutes only the final third of the movie. The rest has been fully imagined by Field and his co-screenwriter, Robert Festinger, as a family epic fraught with seething tensions and barely contained emotional and physical violence. Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek earned a special citation at Sundance for their slow-burning, expertly wrought performances as the heads of an upper-middle-class household in coastal Maine. With their marriage long since settling into routine, they invest heavily in the fate of their only son, Nick Stahl, a promising Ivy League candidate with a gift for architecture. But Stahl's bright future threatens to get derailed by a summer romance with Marisa Tomei, an older woman with heavy baggage, including two young boys and an abusive ex-husband (William Mapother). Quietly, Wilkinson and Spacek operate with opposing agendas: the former, invigorated by his son's youthful passion, gets a vicarious thrill from the affair, while the latter, though outwardly supportive, pulls the reins with her brittle passive-aggression. When a shocking incident shakes up the family, the rotting foundation of their marriage begins to collapse, and deep-seated resentments come to the surface. Moving forward with patient, almost stately deliberation, In The Bedroom examines the violence at the core of these characters' lives, and the toxic ways it manifests itself. As rich as the film is in psychological detail, Field also has a novelist's talent for evoking the community at large, with its underlying class divisions and flavorful rhythms, brilliantly paced to the sound of Boston Red Sox rebroadcasts on the radio. It should come as no surprise that Field proves to be a precise and sensitive actor's director, or that his veteran ensemble cast, particularly Wilkinson, is superb. But in negotiating a story with so many treacherous twists and turns, he gets all the slippery intangibles right, maintaining credibility while gathering his effects for a powerful climactic payoff. Outsized in ambition and accomplishment, In The Bedroom announces a major new talent.
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