It took Andre Dubus all of 18 pages to communicate the grief that fills the two-plus hours of Todd Field's In the Bedroom, a wrenching bit of filmmaking based on Dubus's short tale "Killings." Both story and film tell the same tale in the same solemn and gripping tone, with the same horrific and poignant results: In a small New England town, a mother and father cope, clumsily and brutally, with crushing heartbreak when their son, off to the promise of college and career, is gunned down by the soon-to-be ex-husband of the boy's lover. In the Dubus story, the killing comes early; the tale begins at the funeral and leaps back and forth through time, like a bad memory the mind can't shake. Field's film allows us to spend a little more time with the son, and as a result, it all but drowns us in the sorrow, along with mother and father.
Director Field and co-writer Rob Festinger have at once streamlined and fleshed out Dubus's story. The father, Matt Fowler, is now a doctor and not a shopkeeper; the Fowlers have one son, not two; the setting is Maine, not Massachusetts. Field and Festinger have taken a stark outline and given its pain full color.
At film's beginning, Matt Fowler (Tom Wilkinson) and wife Ruth (Sissy Spacek) are as frisky as new lovers; they tease each other in the kitchen and please each other in the bedroom. Ruth is disquieted by the relationship their son Frank (Bully's Nick Stahl) has begun with Natalie (Marisa Tomei, finally giving a performance worthy of her Oscar), a young mother of two little boys not yet divorced from Richard Strout (William Mapother, Tom Cruise's cousin), whose family controls the cannery that dominates their tiny town of Camden. Ruth frowns upon Frank and Natalie's relationship; she's too old for the boy and burdened by too much baggage, and besides, if Frank truly does love her, it might stop the kid from going off to school to pursue his architecture dreams. Matt, a lifelong resident of Camden, is more understanding -- perhaps, it's suggested, because he lives vicariously through his son.
In a moment of rage, Richard, with a single gunshot, murders Frank and, in effect, an entire family. Matt and Ruth, so loving at first, grow cold and incommunicative after the tragedy -- as though they blame themselves and each other with equal ferocity. And when they do speak to each other, it's with dialogue and delivery so real, it slices the heart.
In the Bedroom can, at times, be too overwhelming; Field allows for no humor, no escape from the tension. The Fowlers' misery (which slowly becomes ours) is inescapable. Adding fuel to their misery is the fact Strout likely will walk for the crime. The gunshot turns into that worst kind of festering wound, a gnawing ache that builds slowly into an anger that, at last, gives way to rationalized acts of madness. If Dubus's work always resembled some sort of literary therapy session, as has often been said, then Field's version requires grief counseling. It is, at times, that devastating.