Dir. Todd Field. Starring Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek, Nick Stahl
I had some issues with Manchester by the Sea, a movie which I found posed and a little preachy, but one thing I never doubted was the tragic moment at the center of the film. I never doubted the plausibility of Lee’s mistake which leads to unimaginable consequences. It seemed unlikely that a house fire might grow and spread because a drunk Lee forgot to put the guard in front of the fireplace before he went on an errand, but that’s unlikely in a probabilistic sense, not in a character sense. I found Kenneth Lonergan’s ability to concoct such a scenario and then pull it off during the course of the film remarkable, and after watching Todd Field’s take on “unthinkable family tragedy” I’m all the more impressed with Lonergan. For the rest of Manchester by the Sea or In the Bedroom to work, the initiating event has to make sense. It must not be shocking, but it has to feel like a possibility, the kind of thing that would never happen to you but which might happen to someone in the newspaper or on Twitter. “Man, inebriated, leaves home and comes back to it burned down, children dead” feels possible, and because it feels possible it is almost unbearable.
What happens in In the Bedroom feels far less likely and thus in impact it’s basically nil. That’s because Field has chosen an event which requires human intentionality as opposed to a freak accident (even though Lee might well be at fault, in a legal sense, for what happens to him). Frank Fowler (Stahl) is a young man primed to take his studies in architecture further, but while he’s home in Maine for the summer he falls for an attractive mother of two, Natalie Strout (Marisa Tomei). Their romance sets off some midlevel sirens for his mother, Ruth (Spacek), which his father, Matt (Wilkinson) seems cautiously optimstic. It sets off all the sirens for Natalie’s psycho ex-husband, Richard (William Mapother, armed with an old-fashioned mustache in a town of clean-shaven men), who beats Frank up offscreen. Then he trashes Natalie’s house and shoots Frank in the face, although the film goes to some lengths to make sure that Richard can never be held to full account for what he’s done. No one ever calls the cops or files a report because of what Richard does before he shoots Frank. Frank doesn’t want to call the police when he gets beaten up, and his insouciance appears catching with Matt; Ruth doesn’t either, presumably because she assumes Frank will downplay it. This makes it weird when a few scenes later, Frank comes to Natalie’s, sees that Richard has thrown lots of stuff on the ground, and immediately, stridently insists that Natalie call the police about it; this time, Natalie tearfully insists that she doesn’t know what she wants to do about the situation.
In this moment, the sock puppet nature of the film starts to reveal itself. The characters stop feeling like people that Field has created and might credibly live on outside of the scenario he’s put them in, and they’ve started to feel like people that are doing precisely what Field imagines them doing in the course of the story without giving much credence to what they might be like outside of this exact situation. Certainly, I’ll grant that people with Frank’s kind of personality (“borderline saintly”) tend to make less of themselves and more of other people, even if it means their scales don’t weigh properly. And of course there is a long history in domestic violence cases where spouses in danger don’t want to But the Fowlers don’t call the police when they have a chance to for the same reason Natalie doesn’t call the police when she has a chance to: it’s because Field can’t have a second half of his movie if there were a stronger case to send Richard to jail for life. If the film works, this series of events would have had to feel like coincidence or chance. The film doesn’t work, though, because it requires us to believe that the five adults in the situation would make this many ludicrous choices on top of each other. I can believe that a guy too drunk to drive on a cold night would walk to the store but forget to put the guard in front of a fireplace. I cannot believe that:
- Richard would trash Natalie’s place, leave, come back, find Frank there, and then shoot Frank. Either he’s got the IQ of a lab rat and genuinely thinks that Natalie and his children aren’t there, or he shoots a guy in broad daylight knowing that there are people upstairs who would be some kind of witness to the event
- Ruth, who is excoriated later in the film for being too controlling, would spend weeks or months having no control over her son’s sex life, which she vocally disapproves of, but then when her son comes home and her doctor husband is doing doctor things on him, she wouldn’t call the cops?
- Matt, who appears to have enough good sense to underpin his career as a GP, would whistle through his own midlife crisis without recognizing that his son is in some kind of danger or making errant decisions
- Natalie would think that she is in control of what Richard is doing when she’s already divorced him and has multiple instances to see that he’s dangerous. She already doesn’t want him to be around his children any more than he has to, so why hasn’t that carried over to literally any other part of her dealings with him?
This isn’t about what I would or wouldn’t do in this situation; if I were Frank, for example, I’d just go to architecture school. Nor is this about what is or isn’t rational, because irrational decisions are what make conflict. What this is about is something Lonergan understands and that Field apparently does not: simplicity is more powerful. It takes a couple bad choices over the course of the night for Lee to atomize his children. (If you want to go back years in Manchester by the Sea, Lee’s alcoholism feeds the simplicity. Through alcohol he’s become this careless idiot; through alcohol he kills his children.) Field, in creating this situation where he gets to play both sides of a game of checkers, has to make us believe that there are a series of choices made with intention and not just from omission, which lead to this point. Lee makes a decision where there were no checks on him. Richard makes a decision where it feels like the checks should have come from all sides, especially given what we do know and will know about the characters. It’s an unthinkable crime for everyone involves, surely. It just shouldn’t be unthinkable for the audience after it happens, and so when we see Frank’s face which will guarantee a closed casket, it’s a whatever moment. You can’t believe that these characters would have acted their way without Field nudging them to these perfectly calculated positions in his dollhouse.
Anyway, Richard murders Frank and, though on bail for the rest of the picture, appears to be in a situation where he’ll be sent away for manslaughter while Matt and Ruth grieve. (Natalie should be in there too, I guess, but she emphatically disappears from the movie when it has no more use for her as a plot point. Once she’s there to scream over Frank’s corpse, she’s basically fulfilled her job; the bottlecap is screwed on once she refuses to lie about the circumstances of Frank’s death in front of a court. There are a couple scenes here and there after that, but it couldn’t be clearer that Natalie is never a person for Field even more than Matt and Ruth aren’t people.) From there it plays a long game of Pong deciding what kind of tone we should be looking for. Is this a grounded, realistic drama? Does it share an understated lineage with recent brilliant additions to the subgenre like The Assistant, The Souvenir, or Never Rarely Sometimes Always? Or is this a slow-building bucolic potboiler, something which is a contemporary version of Road to Perdition or The Witch? The answer, as far as I can tell, is that Field thinks he’s making an understated and realistic drama while he is actually making a country crime film, and thus leaning into all the little flourishes of crime dramas (and stage plays) while the realism gets left aside as incidental. I think this is the case even before Matt shows up at Richard’s home with a gun and plans to kill him while making it look like he’s jumped bail. This is the kind of film where Frank is looking at postgraduate work in architecture and we never see him using CAD because we need to see his simplicity of spirit through the way he diagrams a housing structure with blocks or puts his sketches on his wall. It’s the kind of movie where Matt tries to play detective and says things like “I had to get back to work” when someone asks him why he’s already in the office so soon after Frank’s death. It’s the kind of movie where one of the guys at poker night has a bunch of poems memorized and will like, quote them in their entirety? (I haven’t been that confused by something sneaking into a screenplay in a long time.) Realism is a lot of things, but it’s not hackneyed.
Nor is In the Bedroom Chekhov, precisely. The Oscar reel section of the film comes when Matt and Ruth, who have been basically ignoring each other for the length of the movie, finally have it out after Ruth sees Richard at the market. It turns out both of them, grieving in their very separate ways, have used that extra time apart to blame the other one for making mistakes with Frank which they feel contributed to his death. It’s the kind of thing which, if you’re already wrapped up in the film, is likely to make you feel like you’re watching something really sordid and raw and, most of all, real. The thing about In the Bedroom, as I’ve gone through at length by now, is that it’s enormously difficult to get wrapped up in a film that refuses to let you wrap yourself up in it. I prefer this shouty encounter to the shouty encounter in Marriage Story, which has even stronger “we had to put a fight somewhere” vibes, but in the end I’m just not interested in Field’s pretensions at an argument interrupted by the mundane. After Matt and Ruth take turns yelling at each other—you know how this goes, she starts by saying some stuff, he comes back and says Oh yeah?, then he says some stuff, everyone takes turns and speaks very clearly so you can hear all those sick burns—the doorbell rings. He expects the cops. It’s a girl selling candy bars to send her gymnastics team on a trip. The wires are all the way visible here, on one hand too clearly giving Matt and Ruth enough time apart so they can hug it out, on the other too loudly shouting “This is what would happen if this wasn’t a movie.” There’s a temptation to give actors as flat out good as Wilkinson and Spacek some room to stretch their actorly legs, I think, and yet this scene does little to make the movie make more sense. The Fowlers cannot take back their choices with their son from weeks and years ago any more than Field can release himself from his painfully convoluted story.