In the Bedroom Rethinks the Revenge Thriller, Brilliantly
By Robert Silva
Director Todd Field crafts an American classic — with some help from Stanley Kubrick.
"Punishing a wrongdoer may be more rewarding to the brain than supporting a victim," recent neurological research reports, confirming what's already clear in our collective imagination. From Moby-Dick to John Wick, revenge stories are an American staple, providing catharsis in payback, along with troubling complexities. Released two months after 9/11, Todd Field's In the Bedroom rethinks the revenge plot in provocative and still haunting ways.
Set in working-class Maine, In the Bedroom follows Frank Fowler (Nick Stahl), a proverbial good kid who has just finished college, and started up a summer romance with older woman Natalie (Marisa Tomei). His parents, Matt (Tom Wilkinson) and Ruth (Sissy Spacek) don't approve; but they're also too indulgent to intercede. Natalie has an ex-husband in the picture, a nuisance who becomes a dark threat.
Frank is kindhearted, charismatic, and makes an appealing lead in this drama. But only in a different movie. A shocking, Psycho-like twist upends that version of events. From there, In the Bedroom is impossible to predict. The story itself feels like a life unraveling — leading to unexpected places.
What begins as a relationship drama mutates into a tightly-wound revenge thriller. It's a worn-out genre that all at once feels new, courtesy of the naturalistic performances of Wilkinson and Spacek (who won the Best Actress Oscar for her role), as an old married couple who aren't just forced to deal with life after tragedy, but rethink who they are.
But finally it's Todd Field, an actor who made his directorial debut with In the Bedroom, who makes the movie what it is. Adapting it from "Killings" by short-story master Andre Dubus, Field expands it into feature length without losing the original's compressed intensity; In the Bedroom is a work that's both meticulously controlled and thrillingly ambiguous. Those are also qualities of the work of director Stanley Kubrick, who cast Field as jazz pianist Nick Nightingale in what would be his final film, Eyes Wide Shut. According to Field, his 15 months spent with Kubrick was an education in moviemaking.
"It was a life-changing experience, and I don’t believe I would have made [In the Bedroom] if I hadn’t had it," Field told Filmmaker Magazine. "There was an intensity and a sense of possibility in that experience ... you don’t have to make a film with all the toys and gadgets and a million crew-people. You don’t have to make everything else more important than the acting and the performances. There was an intimacy to it that made me want to make a film in that way."
Like in Kubrick's best films, In the Bedroom allows space for viewers to make their own decisions. The enigmatic ending of the film is both satisfying and immensely troubling. Audience members want to see wrongs righted. They want to see the evildoers punished. But what does that actually look like in real life? Like in Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, the audience waits to see violent retribution, and are stunned to get exactly what they desired.
With quiet authority, In the Bedroom makes all other revenge movie seem tame.