When I tell you that In the Bedroom is a suspense movie, please don't imagine that I mean it's a thriller. The world's been getting its fill of those, and more than its fill: stalker and slasher pictures, neo-film noirs and updated Grands Guignols, police stories, spy stories, international-jewel-thief stories, heart-stopping roller-coaster rides of all kinds. Those films live or die on momentum; whereas In the Bedroom moves toward a stasis and then prolongs it, so that you're truly kept hanging.
Hanging over what? A precipice of violence, certainly. You know, from the start, that blood will be shed, and that more blood must ultimately answer for it. But if you're Matt and Ruth Fowler, the grieving couple of In the Bedroom, the plunge that you most ache for, and dread, is the one that will plummet you back to routine.
It seems a pleasant enough routine at first. Matt (Tom Wilkinson) and Ruth (Sissy Spacek) live cozily in Camden, Maine, where he works as a family doctor and she teaches school. They mark their time with Fourth of July picnics and Labor Day concerts, Little League games and lobster-fishing excursions. The refrigerator is always full and a Red Sox broadcast always on the air. Except for the harborside bustle of a cannery, you might imagine the setting as small-town pastoral.
So why does the movie's first human utterance–a squeal of delight–sound so much like a scream for help? The images begin with Frank (Nick Stahl), the Fowlers' college-age son, chasing across a ripe field after Natalie (Marisa Tomei); and given the distant viewpoint and her ambiguous cry, you can't initially judge the urgency of the pursuit. Neither can Frank and Natalie, it turns out. When at last they're lying together in the tall grass, smooching, she murmurs "I love you," to which Frank answers, "I know."
Their affair is just a summer fling, he tells his mother–nothing serious. She shoots him one of those impatient Sissy Spacek glances and asks whether the not-yet-divorced Natalie would agree. Her growing dependence on Frank is unmistakable. So, too, is Frank's reluctance to separate from her and go back to school. He's already behaving like a father to her two young boys. Meanwhile, their real dad (William Mapother) glowers in the background, or sometimes glares right into the Fowlers' faces.
The first crisis hits when he sends Frank home with a black eye. Ruth rages, ordering her son to end the affair and call the police; but to her disgust, Matt overrules her, counseling patience. Like most guys of the mild and amiable type, he'd prefer not to deal with a psychopath. Never mind that the code of manhood demands a response. The estranged husband will calm down on his own–maybe. Frank can enjoy his fling, while it lasts, and Matt can sneak the occasional glance at Natalie's skirt as it clings to her haunches.
The second crisis confirms that Ruth was right.
So the suspense begins, after the funeral. In a series of short, exquisitely rendered scenes, Ruth and Matt pretend to get on with life, and you understand they can't. They merely hover in place. Late at night they kill time before talk shows, sitting at a distance from one another, not speaking, not touching, just letting the blue light wash over them. That's as much as they now can share. While Matt stays out of the house during the days and keeps himself busy, Ruth lies in bed, or watches more television and broods. A brief image of her, lingering by the stair before a curtained window, sums up the state of her suspense: As if puzzled to learn that she isn't alone, she stares at Matt as he mows the lawn.