Since its debut at Sundance earlier this year, Todd Field's feature debut "In the Bedroom" has generated considerable buzz, especially in the last month, garnering nominations from the Golden Globes, the Golden Satellites, and the American Film Institute, as well as top honors from various critics' associations, such as the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the New York Film Critics Circle Awards. True, Tom Wilkinson ("Shakespeare in Love") and Sissy Spacek ("Blast from the Past") deliver skillful performances as a middle-aged couple who are slowly torn apart by catastrophic tragedy, and probably deserve kudos for their work here. Unfortunately, Field's deliberately slow approach and preoccupation with detailing the minutiae the couple's gradual disintegration end up turning "In the Bedroom" into a long and tedious 'introspective' revenge thriller that quickly wears out its welcome.
The film takes its title from the innermost chamber of a lobster trap. As mentioned in the film's opening, traps should not be left in the water for too long, otherwise two or more lobsters might end up in the 'bedroom' and end up damaging each other. From this obvious metaphor, we are introduced to the Fowlers, who reside in Camden, Maine. Matt Fowler (Wilkinson) is the town's physician and his wife Ruth (Spacek) is a teacher at the local high school. Their college-bound son Frank (Nick Stahl of "The Thin Red Line") is spending the summer lobstering, and has hooked up with Natalie Strout (Marisa Tomei of "Someone Like You"), an older woman with two young children. Though he reassures his parents that it is just a 'summer thing', deep down, Nick is considering delaying his schooling in architecture so that he can spend more time with Natalie. To further complicate matters, Natalie's estranged husband Richard (William Mapother of "Mission: Impossible 2") doesn't take too kindly to Frank being involved with Natalie, triggering a jealous rage that ignites a chain reaction of tragedy.
The film's first half competently establishes the main players, and gradually ratchets up the tension with hints of violent confrontation. The act of violence that propels the rest of the story is also well done with its unflinching portrayal of the fear and emotional turmoil on the characters involved. Unfortunately, it is all downhill from here, as Field takes what seems to be a lifetime to study the reactions of Matt and Ruth, as well as bring the story to some sort of resolution.
Matt and Ruth each have different reactions to the tragedy, and these are brought to life by Wilkinson and Spacek's memorable performances, who display an intimate understanding of their characters. Whereas Matt tries to carry on with his normal routine, keeping his grief in check and his simmering rage below the surface, Ruth becomes quiet and withdrawn until provoked into explosive fury. From shared sorrow and despair, they eventually turn on each other, trying to assign blame in the tragedy: Matt for tolerating Frank's relationship with Natalie as a way of living vicariously through his son, and Ruth for always being unforgiving and critical to her son. What was once a happy and open middle-aged couple has now been replaced by two bitter and angry people, who only share silence and the desire to lash out.
Unfortunately, in presenting these two richly developed characters, Field forgets that he has a story to tell. After awhile, the methodical examination of Matt and Ruth's tragic fall becomes tedious to watch, especially in the way Fields frustrates the viewer by deliberately putting all the pieces together as if to propel the story forward, only to pull away at the last minute for additional introspection.
Every year, there are films that critics love and audiences cannot stand. In 1998, it was "The Thin Red Line"... in 1999 it was "Topsy-Turvy"... and this year, it will probably be "In the Bedroom". Though all the right ingredients seem to be in place, including two well-developed characters and Oscar-worthy performances to back them up, Todd Field's 'slow boil' approach to telling the story ends up spoiling the soup.