In the Bedroom

By Tim Winterstein

File this under favorite authors/favorite films. I’ve enjoyed reading Andre Dubus since I was in college. “Killings” is one of his short stories that moved me most. (For another, try “A Father’s Story.”) Todd Field and Rob Festinger do both the story and Dubus himself more than justice in their 2001 film adaptation, In the Bedroom.

I don’t detect a false note anywhere in this film. Every detail is fitted perfectly to the story; every moment adds texture and contour and weight. The kids on the baseball field, the Red Sox games on the radio at significant moments, the details of place in Maine: this is what it looks like to build a believable film.

These details are not necessarily the same as in Dubus’ spare fiction. The story takes place in Massachusetts, Matt Fowler is a doctor rather than a store owner, Frank has two other siblings, and Natalie’s name is Mary Ann. But this is one of those rare instances where the changed details enhance rather than detract from the story. One of the most intriguing changes is Ruth as a music teacher. The music she teaches is, as Natalie says, haunting. It is unlike most choral music that we are likely to hear and so adds a striking backdrop to the film.

Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson are maybe the best I’ve ever seen them, and their grief is more real and palpable than any other film that comes to mind. The theme of grief that is left to hints and suggestions in the story is at the fore in the film. Whereas A Ghost Story approaches grief from a surreal yet mundane point of view, In the Bedroom displays a visceral and angry grief at what is lost. The weight of Matt and Ruth’s bitterness is multiplied by a continual barrage of unfairnesses that become unbearable. Grief transforms their joking, marital jabs into the fuel for a raging argument. It changes their comfortable, late-summer parenthood into loneliness and regret. Seriously, watch this film just to witness Spacek and Wilkinson inhabit these characters.

William Mapother is menacing and arrogant from the beginning, excellent for the part; and Marisa Tomei—even at what sometimes seem like acting missteps—creates the character of Natalie/Mary Ann out of nothing, since she only appears in the short story through Matt’s eyes.

On this additional viewing, I noticed how often people and things are seen through windows and in mirrors. So much is based on the reflections of things rather than the things themselves. Jealousy, anger, and grief all cloud the sight and distort how things appear. This is apparent not only in the main characters but in the ineffective priest (at least, he seems to be a priest since he’s wearing a collar; in the story, he’s a congregational minister). His words at the graveside are, inexplicably, from Kahlil Gibran’s poem “On Death” rather than from the Scriptures.

His incompetence becomes even more obvious when he sits and talks to Ruth in the cemetery. She says, “I’m just so angry,” and all he can offer is a “vision” that another woman told him about joining a line of grieving mothers. Ruth says, “How did the child die?” And the priest says, “Drowning. I think it was some kind of swimming accident.” You can feel Ruth’s closing off at that point because a young child drowning in an accident seems far distant from a jealous husband shooting and killing her son.

And what about revenge? I’m fairly certain that anyone who’s had a family member murdered would, at the very least, consider or fantasize about doing what Matt does. But after being consumed by the desire, the planning, and the carrying out of the plan, what then? When Matt gets into bed early in the morning, the emptiness crowds out the exhaustion, and he still can’t sleep. What, finally, has he accomplished? That question is left for the viewer and/or reader to consider as Matt ignores Ruth’s questions and the only sounds are the birds and a barking dog in the brightening dawn.

Obviously, there may be people who aren’t able to watch this film—people who themselves have lost children, for example—but for others, this is a film to add to your list of must-watch (even if you last watched it years ago, as I did). The screenplay is perfectly suited to the tone of Dubus’ story. Spacek and Wilkinson are great. And the themes are explored at a skillful pace without overexplaining. In the Bedroom is an exemplar of how to adapt fiction to film.