Any Maine fisherman knows that “the bedroom” is more than where he lays his head at night. It’s also the part of a lobster trap where, having entered, the unfortunate crustacean can no longer back out. And traps have to be checked often because, if more than two lobsters get stuck in the bedroom, they fight to destroy each other.
Seafaring Frank Fowler finds himself trapped in more ways than one. A recent high school graduate, he’d be content to work on a fishing rig forever. But his physician father wants him to get an Ivy League education, and his mother just wants to control his life. On top of that, he’s dating Natalie, a woman who is several years his senior with two children and a divorce that’s not quite final. Lately, her husband Richard has been hanging around, and he’s increasingly volatile. The metaphor is set. There are too many people in Frank’s bedroom, and things are about to get messy.
It sounds like a setup for a blunt-force trauma thriller, but In the Bedroom doesn’t go there. Instead, it’s the Fowlers’ sleepy New England hometown that sets the pace. It’s breathtaking, but soberingly realistic. Sunny pastoral and maritime scenes are balanced by lawns that aren’t manicured and trees that want pruning. Layered into the beautiful cinematography is a story that’s understated and carefully paced.
Frank repeatedly tells his mother that he’s not serious about Natalie (“It’s just a summer thing”). But he continues to pursue her, and things get more serious than he intends. A frantic phone call from one of Natalie’s boys brings it all to a head. Richard is in the house and he’s treating Natalie roughly. The boys are scared. Frank, exhibiting maturity beyond his years, comes to the rescue and almost manages to diffuse the situation, then takes a bullet in the head. And that’s where In the Bedroom begins its study of grief and family relationships.
What happens to a marriage when tragedy occurs? How can the world go on when your life is falling apart? Bitterness. Rage. Helplessness. Confusion. Matt and Ruth Fowler—phenomenally portrayed by Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek—bare the souls of a couple who have been wounded beyond belief or consolation by the death of their son. Everyday life is a biting irony. Coping mechanisms are counter-productive. And in desperation to do something some people make choices that can’t be undone.
positive content: The lessons to be gleaned from In the Bedroom stem not from characters who set a good example, but from an open invitation to learn from their mistakes. Among them: 1) Destructive patterns established early in marriage may be easy to ignore for a while, but when a crisis hits, they become huge liabilities. 2) Honest communication between spouses is essential to the success of a marriage. 3) The consequences of divorce are far-reaching. 4) Parents shouldn’t try to live their lives through their children. 5) The choice of a dating partner shouldn’t be a casual decision.
spiritual content: With a plot that begs for comfort of an eternal nature, it’s disappointing that In the Bedroom shies away from spiritual answers. The priest who officiates at Frank’s funeral and offers periodic counsel is of the bland sort who never talks about God or the supernatural.
sexual content: Dr. and Mrs. Fowler are shown in bed several times, mostly just talking. His puns often play as double entendre, but they’re not over-the-top. Frank and Natalie are shown kissing, but never in bed together (still, it is understood by everyone that they are having sex, even though she is still married to Richard). Elsewhere, a middle-aged man ogles Natalie, and in the heat of an argument, Ruth accuses Matt of encouraging Frank’s relationship with Natalie because he secretly yearned for her too.
violent content: We hear—but don’t see—Richard shoot Frank. Afterward, a gruesome close-up of Frank’s destroyed face is shown. Also, a man is shot three times at close range, but the lighting is low and the scene is not bloody.
crude or profane language: About 10 uses of the f-word, often as slang for sex. A handful of s-words and a dozen other milder profanities also crowd their way into the story. God’s name is repeatedly taken in vain, including multiple uses of Jesus and Jesus Christ as swear words.
drug and alcohol content: Beer and wine are consumed with meals. The priest drinks beer at a picnic. Matt goes to a bar several times and Ruth accuses him of drinking to drown his sorrows (we never see him drunk). Natalie smokes cigarettes, and after Frank’s death, Ruth becomes a chain smoker.
other negative elements: Matt and his friends play poker for small stakes.
conclusion: The career-driven dad; the controlling, unresponsive wife; the son who bucks his parents’ expectations; the single mom looking for new love; the angry ex-husband. We’ve seen these people in so many movies that they’ve become stock characters. But In the Bedroom is not a story of straw men and razor-thin personalities. Each mind is complex. Each heart is capable of unexpected things. This film’s deep character development, mature emotional content and reserved pacing remove it from the realm of interest for most teenagers, but it is exactly these elements, along with masterful acting and captivating camera work that put it on the short list for Oscar nods. As such, many movie aficionados (teen and otherwise) will be sure to watch it.
In the Bedroom’s treatment of grief, crisis, dysfunction and the human heart is so deep and thought provoking (not to mention emotionally exhausting) that, in its throes, it is difficult to predict how it will conclude. When it did, sadly, I was more than a little disappointed. Though the climax doesn’t fall squarely into the typical Hollywood pattern, it’s still too formulaic to be worthy of the film’s first two hours, which are so far removed from big budget triteness. But my qualms aren’t rooted solely in critical analysis. The ending (which I won’t reveal here) is also morally problematic. Added to harsh language and the intensity of murder, it will prove a strong deterrent for families.