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February 8, 2002

In The Bedroom: Hire Judith, she archetypes

In the Bedroom

Directed by Todd Field

130 min. Rated R, Miramax

There aren't many movies that are commendable for their use of archetypes. Even in this day and age of cookie-cutter dramas and even more mindless teen comedies (and did I mention action films?), it's all the rage to point out a movie's merits on the basis of its genre-bending writing, characterization, or even casting. Much like Homey da Clown, however, In the Bedroom doesn't play that game. It throws archetypes at you in every frame. Well, actually, it doesn't throw them at you, nor does it hit you over the head with them; they're more like a subtle shiv to the ribs. You can't help but feel that you have always seen these characters in everyone you have ever known; how much more archetypical is that? To give a sense of what I mean, for the rest of the review I will refer to the characters as the archetypes they are — if only to end up emphasizing how In the Bedroom messes with these archetypes while keeping their universalism intact.

In a small coastal town in Maine (supposedly Camden, for all those of you know and love it), the Fowlers, Mother, Father, and Good Son, live their lives of silently despairing upward mobility. The Parents are both respected Professionals whose jobs give them absolutely no stress (that's left for everything else in their lives), just like Professionals' jobs are supposed to do. The Good Son is an aspiring architect (he is only 18!) who chats knowingly with the professors he is planning on working with (he is only 18!) when he goes to college (he is only 18!). The Suffering Single Mother Looking for a Little Escape from Life is suffering in her job as a convenience store cashier, patiently raising her two sons as a single mother, and looking for a little escape in life.

Those are the main characters in the story (archetypical, aren't they?), but director Todd Field has deviously tried to hide their true identities from us. Right from the get-go, he tries to fool us into thinking that these characters aren't really his idea of Everyman and Everywoman in Exceptional Circumstances. In the very first scene of the movie, the Suffering Single Mother (who has been looking for some escape from life - but we don't know this yet) and the Good Son (he is only 18! - but we don't know this yet) go for a romp in the sweet summer grass. (Some people have compared that scene to the truly awe-inspiring scenes of the Kansas wheatfields in Days of Heaven; I think it was more like the limpid pools of schmaltz in recent teen pastorals like Here on Earth, with Chris Klein and LeeLee Sobieski, or A Walk to Remember with Mandy Moore. But I digress…) Our immediate reaction to their purely PG-romp is to say, "oh, how cute," especially since the Suffering Single Mother is played by Marisa Tomei, who looks nowhere near old enough to play that archetype — she is still quite dishy, and she still looks like she should be fair game for any 18-year-old who comes along (Remember her on A Different World? I thought you did).

Our very next reaction is to cringe in horror at what that scene can only mean for the rest of the movie, for in the next scene we realize that Tomei is actually an archetype, the Suffering Single Mother, who can only cause grief, trial and tribulation for the Good Son, his Mother, and his Father. Strangely enough, the characters are reluctant to recognize the same cloud of doom that hovers over them (don't they know they're in a movie?), and everybody acts as if they aren't deeply, deeply threatened, either by the prospect of their Good Son going out with a Suffering Single Mother, or by the Jealous Estranged Husband who keeps coming over uninvited. They don't freak out, they don't do anything amazingly resourceful or creative, they don't have a Very Special moment with their son, or their lover, or their Jealous Estranged Husband. All in all, they are very Regular - far too Regular for a normal movie. They are much too much like us, the movie audience, who can see ourselves doing exactly what the archetypes are doing — which is nothing.

Until it's too late, of course. There is trouble in paradise: the gods aren't too happy with a Good Son who is nevertheless ready to postpone college, and work as a lobsterman while he looks after the Suffering Single Mother and her kids. Something happens which puts a severe crimp in the Good Son's future prospects (if you can see it coming, don't tell that clueless person on your left). After this, the Father and Mother remain Regular — just a darker shade of Regular. Old animosities come out, bitter venom is spewed, and extreme measures are taken, all in the quest to put everything Right Again. Except that it isn't all Right Again. In my favorite and most understated part of the movie, right at the very end, there is a sort-of Rashomon moment (or, if you're unfamiliar with that film, think Memento; if you haven't seen that one, who are you?). Our earlier doubts, if we had them, of the certainty of events are multiplied tenfold, and our hope that the Fowlers could possibly live Happily Ever After has been dashed to bits.

In the Bedroom is obviously not a Good Time. It's not a Chick Flick, or a Crime (read: Guy's) Movie, or a Steel Magnolias-A-Human-Tragedy-Has-Occurred-But-We'll-All-Get-Through-It-Together sort of thing. Of course not, it didn't have to be, it wasn't made in Hollywood. What it is, though, is the kind of movie that you and I should be wasting our time on instead of wasting it on Slackers, with that noted thespian Devon Sawa. In the Bedroom takes many of the notable Hollywood conventions, and — no it doesn't turn them on their head, it doesn't make a biting satirical comment at their expense. It does something even more violent — it IGNORES them.

Ignores them just like the Fowlers ignore the problems that are right in front of their noses. Their ignorance is the greatest violence that they could do, or have ever done, to themselves. The main performances, which are excellent, find their greatest strength from the actors' abilities to willfully ignore their latent need to reach out in empathy and concern. Sissy Spacek, who plays the Mother, finds just the right tone, halfway between her roles in JFK (another archetypal Mother) and Carrie. Having been given a very thankless role, the kind that usually kills lesser actresses' careers, Spacek makes us admire her for keeping her character fragile and Motherly even while she gets colder and colder and colder. Tom Wilkinson, the Father, doesn't give in to an actor's worst instinct and play the part with resentment and agony written all over his face. The script makes it very clear how he feels, so Wilkinson is free to bring to the fore the Father's even more repressed emotions — fear, caring, and helplessness — and he does, very effectively but very, very minimally. The other performances were strong, but I was especially taken with Nick Stahl; he played the most vulnerable Jealous Estranged Husband I have ever seen.

What more can I say? I'm sure I could blather on and on about Brilliant New Talents, or Marvelous Production Values, or some such thing. I won't, though. If you aren't already interested in examining the despair that is in store for, oh, about 75 percent of us for the rest of our lives, I have some advice for you: go see Crossroads. I have a feeling Britney Spears lives happily ever after. If you are a more discerning observer of the post-modern human condition, then — well, you know what I'm going to say. And I shouldn't have to take off my shirt to convince you.