Static Electricity

Static Electricity

Stuart Klwans reviews two films: In the Bedroom, by Todd Field, and The Man Who Wasn't There, by the Coen brothers.


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.

The quiet eloquence of that image says a lot about the merits of In the Bedroom. You can admire the shot, first of all, for the way it's composed, with Ruth framed in a narrow enclosure. To her left is a staircase, which she doesn't ascend; to her right is a mirror, which she doesn't look into; in front of her hangs a veiled rectangle of light, which for Ruth illuminates nothing. Add to these qualities the rightness of the setting. You feel that the hallway you're seeing has really been inhabited, and (more to the point) inhabited in Maine. On top of that, you can enjoy the image for the sake of Sissy Spacek, who conveys more with her back turned, through her elbows and shoulders, than other actresses show in their most loving close-ups. Everything's legible in Spacek's body: not only exhaustion, grief, hollowness and anger but also the curiosity that first brought Ruth to the window, and that somehow isn't satisfied by the sight of Matt.

Perhaps most of all, the image is worth mulling over because of what it says about men and women. Matt is outside, being practical, while Ruth stays indoors with her emotions. As the tension builds between the characters–that, too, is part of the suspense–you see how consistently Matt fails to ask Ruth about her feelings, and how she'd rather let them eat through her stomach than offer them up uninvited. Of course, for all Matt's inattention, he's the nice guy. (Wilkinson is brilliant at the shambling gait, the smiling drawl.) She's the hard case, who keeps forfeiting his care–but then, she was right, wasn't she? She'd tried to take action against Frank's attacker, the way men are supposed to. He just went along; and now Ruth has no better use for her force than to slam down the groceries when she unpacks.

All this would be remarkable enough; but there's more, since In the Bedroom also tells us something about money. Ruth and Matt have a little of it; they live simply but well. The estranged husband, though, has a lot, which is why he can take Frank's life and walk around free. That cannery in the harbor, the town's big industry, happens to belong to his family. Trucks that bear his name rumble by at all hours; they're even visible through a window when Matt talks about the case. So justice is deferred, and suspense continues to build. Is it any surprise that money should figure directly in the scene where Matt reaches his moment of decision? Talking to the district attorney, who can offer only a shrug, Matt begins jingling the change in his pocket. Its noise drowns out the excuses. Matt's ready for the plunge.

Based on a story by André Dubus, In the Bedroom is the debut feature of director Todd Field, which is another good reason to praise the film. Unlike so many novice directors, Field doesn't want to turn pirouettes with the camera. He's far more interested in conveying a sense of place–in knowing, for example, when the Red Sox games are broadcast. In that sense, Field has less in common with the average first-timer than with veteran regionalist Victor Nunez, for whom he acted in Ruby in Paradise.

Field also differs from most first-timers in truly caring about work and sex and money. He's put them into his film not because they spark the plot but because they move the characters, who (like the rest of us) can't always talk plainly about these things.

Outwardly modest, inwardly tough, In the Bedroom ends on a note of calm that should not be mistaken for peace. As Ruth and Matt reach an understanding that had better remain tacit, the images recede in stages from their house, gradually absorbing the couple into the quiet of a Maine town at dawn. Everything looks as it should. The suspense is over; they're back in the flow.

And you know the price.

Department of Rorschach Testing: Like quite a few moviegoers, I had a good time watching the Coen brothers' new picture, The Man Who Wasn't There. But as I look back on it, blinking my mind's eye, I keep seeing something that seems to be going unmentioned.

As you may know, The Man Who Wasn't There is an imitation film noir, set in a small California city in the late 1940s. Billy Bob Thornton plays a taciturn barber, who makes a single, clumsy attempt to escape from his quiet desperation and so sets off a chain of fatal consequences. Everyone seems to agree that as an exercise in style, the movie is first-rate. What's missing from the discussion, I think, is any mention of the subject matter.

When a character introduces himself by saying he doesn't talk much; when he keeps his lip buttoned throughout the movie; when he concludes by remarking that in a better world he'll say things for which he's never had the words in this life, I have to wonder: What can't he talk about? So I begin to catalogue the barber's strange behavior. He goes to visit a gay man in a cheap hotel, because he can't stop thinking about…dry cleaning. He visits the in-laws with his heavy-drinking wife and hears the classic question, Why haven't you two ever had children? He runs into a high school girl to whom he's formed a sentimental attachment and turns shy–not to her, but to her boyfriend. These may be some of the reasons why, twice in the picture, people shout at the barber, "What kind of a man are you?"

I believe The Man Who Wasn't There is about a deeply closeted gay man, living in a time and place when it was hard to admit such desires, even to oneself. That's why I like the picture so much: It's perfectly, elegantly reticent about its subject matter, as suits both the theme and the tradition of film noir (a type of filmmaking that thrives on unstated motives). Of course, when I pick up on these clues, I may be Rorschaching; but I still think there's a there in The Man Who Wasn't There.

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