I DON'T UNDERSTAND WHY EVERYBODY is making such a fuss over In the Bedroom, Todd Field's first feature-length movie. The film has a few surprisingly good moments, but these are vastly outweighed by its creakinesses, its unlikelihoods, and its forced, false emotions. It deals with a subject--the murder of a beloved only child--that is almost destined to fail if it does not rise uncannily above itself, and given this choice, In the Bedroom opts repeatedly for failure. That it should do so is comprehensible and perhaps even honorable (as ambitious failures are often honorable), but it does not make for a coherent, aesthetically satisfying, emotionally rewarding artistic experience.
In the Bedroom is actually three movies bundled into one, and like its youthful hero, each of the three gets cut off in its prime. First there is the Maine-local-color movie, a portrait of the seaside town of Camden, with undertones of harshness and potential violence shimmering through the wealth of natural beauty. This segment introduces us to Frank Fowler, a handsome, engaging, promising young architecture student appealingly played by Nick Stahl; his parents, a doctor (Tom Wilkinson) and a music teacher (Sissy Spacek); his girlfriend, Natalie (Marisa Tomei), a slightly older woman with two young boys from a former marriage; and her ex-husband, a threatening no-goodnik who happens to be the scion of the town's wealthiest family, owners of the local fishery. It also introduces us to a range of supporting characters and to the town of Camden itself.
But already one senses something false here. If you've ever seen Frederick Wiseman's terrific documentary Belfast, Maine, you'll recognize that Field's version of a small Maine town is a sanitized, Hollywoodized portrayal, focusing almost completely on the generically American upper-middle-class types and ignoring the very people who give such towns their rich, strange, and sometimes frightening local character. The film's verisimilitude is not helped by the fact that virtually none of the actors have mastered the distinctive regional accents of Maine. Marisa Tomei is especially badly miscast: She sounds, indeed, like a local girl, but her locale is audibly Brooklyn, and when she tries to do something approaching a down-east inflection, it comes out instead as Chico Marx. ("I love-a you," she tells Frank in one of their early scenes together.) I also thought it odd that her ex-husband, who is supposed to come from a very rich family, spoke with the lowest regional accent--but then, class is one of the subjects on which In the Bedroom seems distinctly unclear.
Sex is another. Repeatedly, the movie tells us that the female of the species is bad news. During a fishing episode that provides the movie's title, wise old Dr. Fowler tells one of Natalie's young sons that the lady lobster is the one to watch out for, since what happens "in the bedroom" is likely to cost the competing males a limb or two, at the very least. This little nugget sets us up for movie number two, the one that begins when Thuggish Ex-Husband shoots Lovable Young Frank through the eye. (I must admit that at this point, with the loss of the only character I cared anything about, my interest in the film diminished severely. If it had been a better movie--if it had been even half as good, for instance, as Pedro Almodovar's All About My Mother--my attachment to the dead boy could have worked in the film's favor. But it never had any hopes of being that good.)
The middle section of In the Bedroom has been widely praised as an astute, sensitive, …