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Down to Earth

Stanley Kauffmann on Films

In his short story "Killings," as in others of his stories, Andre Dubus looks down on his characters like a fairly friendly god, comprehending mortals' troubles with just slight amusement. Dubus, as god, has a uniquely blended view from above, understanding but cool. He lets his characters work through all the anguish, tension, bitterness that they encounter or evolve for themselves, something like animals in mazes, except he knows that they have souls. 

Dubus begins "Killings" with the funeral, in a coastal Maine town, of a youth who was murdered by the estranged husband of a woman with whom the youth had been having an affair. The story fixes on the grief of the youth's parents, Matt Fowler, a shopkeeper, and his wife Ruth. The murderer, who is the scion of the local rich family, is out on bail and moves easily around the streets of the town, drinking and seeing women. He will be tried for manslaughter and will probably be out of prison in a relatively short time. These facts fester so furiously in the bereaved Matt that, with the help of a friend, he takes matters into his own hands. (There is no point in being coy about the ending of a story that has been in print for years.) Ruth is quietly pleased. Lynch law has prevailed, and Dubus, even if he pities their agonies, understands from above that he must let these people fashion their own fates according to their size and capacity.

Now Todd Field, a keenly gifted director, has (with the help of Robert Festinger) adapted the Dubus story for the screen with the title In the Bedroom (Miramax). The new title, like the previous one, is unspecific: it could be the title of at least half the plays and films in Western history. Field has kept almost all the elements of the Dubus story, but he has amplified them and, more saliently, has altered the tone. Not for Field the view from above of mortal frenzies: he wants to be close to his people, to bring them near, to register the heat of the fateful love affair, to plunge into the grief of the bereaved parents. With this increased proximity, he decides to "humanize"; he changes Matt from a storekeeper to a doctor--to give him more concern with people and to make the ending more anomalous. But he does not explain why this doctor has a pistol. (The storekeeper carried it when he made night deposits.) To make the ultimate execution seem more impulse than plan, less malevolent, Field omits the preparations that are in the story, and he omits Ruth's tacit participation in the plot. In sum, Field has lowered the tenor of the story from one of fate, seen from above with Greek inevitability, to a domestic drama.

But--and it's a tremendous but--Field has directed it exquisitely. (He has directed before and has done some acting: he was Tom Cruise's friend in Eyes Wide Shut.) From the beginning he underlines apparent simplicities with hidden complications. The very first sequence is misleading, deliberately so. A young man is chasing a laughing young woman through a meadow on a sunny day. (It's New England, and Andrew Wyeth hovers over the scene: indeed, we later glimpse a book about the Wyeths.) He catches her; they tumble and kiss and laugh, and seem immersed in dewy young love. It soon comes as a surprise that, though he is a youth right enough, she is a divorcing wife with two young children. We then recognize that the director wants to show us surfaces that conceal contradictions. The film finishes in the very same vein: the last sequence consists of vistas of a tranquil Maine town where we have seen tranquillity fractured.

Field works throughout the picture to blend the just-folks conventionality of individual scenes with a silence that snakes along underneath and that eventually wrenches the story out of homespun platitude into abysses. The two leading characters are Matt, the town doctor, and his wife Ruth, a music teacher at the high school. Theirs is the youthful son, college age, who is having what he himself calls a summer affair with an older woman. His mother, more than his father, is uneasy about the affair. The woman's husband, vain and aggressive and menacing, wants to get his wife back. Violence is threatened, and it arrives. The son is killed. The film then moves into its true subject: the parents' grief--or griefs, for they grieve differently.

We enter the shadows with Ruth and Matt. (There's a hint in the air of Atom Egoyan's film The Sweet Hereafter, which also dwelled in this land of shadows.) The couple now seem encapsulated, removed from the world and from each other, as if they were clothed in invisible space suits or deep-sea outfits. Such a moment as when Ruth closes her eyes and leans back in a car while the voices of others continue around her, or when Matt meets a man in the street and the camera closes up on this or that bit of the man's front, an index of how Matt is anatomizing the man as if to wonder why he is still bothering to be alive to talk to this person--such moments are dramas of horrifyingly pure loneliness. The scene in which Matt and Ruth break out of their form-fitted prisons to quarrel, and to cry, only emphasizes their bewilderment about how to go on living now.

On the way to this rupture, the film achieves much. Helped by Antonio Calvache's delicate camera work, Field seems to inscribe his story on skin. I have rarely been so aware of the actual skin of characters' faces. Apparently no makeup was used, and without intent of tabloid-news starkness, each face is presented as a document, freckled, wrinkled, or whatever. Further, Field weaves the life of the town, especially its lobstering, into the story without heavy thumbprints. (One dubious touch: at Matt's regular poker games, one of his cronies quotes Blake and Frost.)

Nick Stahl, as the Fowlers' son, has the headstrong maleness of a young man whose hormones make him take risks. Marisa Tomei, as the divorcing wife, justifies his interest. In the role of Ruth, Sissy Spacek fills every requirement as if she were keeping a promise: nothing is false, nothing is memorable. As Matt, Tom Wilkinson continues to build a career of largely ignored astonishments. Wilkinson is English, and our relish of his performance does not depend on the fact that an Englishman has caught the Down East accent perfectly. He established his versatility long ago in his own country, from the Marquess of Queensberry in Wilde to the prole rowdiness of The Full Monty. By now it would have been surprising if he had not given full body to Matt. He is one of those acting treasures who seem quite content to go on being insufficiently appreciated as long as they get sufficient good roles.

In the Bedroom leaves us with the happy knowledge that with Field the American film scene, continually deplored as scraggly, can boast another admirable directing talent. But we can all hope that if his next screenplay is an adaptation of something as good as the Dubus story, he will not well-meaningly "humanize" it down a couple of notches.

This article originally ran in the December 17, 2001, issue of the magazine.