Before the year ends, women over 40 will be making a comeback. It’s too early to tell you about Judi Dench’s colossal performance as British novelist Iris Murdoch in the Christmas release Iris , but I sincerely believe there’s another Oscar in the wings with her name on it. Then there’s Stockard Channing’s electricity to stun you like a wet toe in a hot socket in The Business of Strangers , opening Dec. 7. For now, you can bask in the truthful glow of Sissy Spacek’s triumphant return to stardom in the brilliant, lyrical, sensitive, literate and heartbreaking In the Bedroom , a film that also signals a return to the kind of grown-up moviemaking that’s as hard to find in today’s American cinema as a Bible in Kabul. The year-end countdown is here, but so far In the Bedroom is the best film I’ve seen in 2001.
In the Bedroom is such a meticulously observed portrait of small-town New England life that it’s difficult to believe it’s a first feature by director Todd Field, an actor who also co-wrote the eloquent, emotionally gripping script with Rob Festinger. A good director can often capture the way real people talk and think on film, but Mr. Field shows the way they live and feel, day by day, in the aftermath of a brutal and senseless crime that wrecks the balance of life in a coastal village in Maine. Sissy Spacek and the great British actor Tom Wilkinson play Ruth and Matt Fowler, two pillars of their community with a comfortable and satisfying middle-class lifestyle. Matt is the gentle, respected town doctor everyone trusts, and Ruth is a resourceful housewife with a music degree who leads the high-school glee club. They have high hopes and big plans for their only son, Frank (Nick Stahl), who lets them down by spending his last summer before college tending lobster traps and hanging out with a lonely, unhappy, socially inferior but good-natured older woman named Natalie (Marisa Tomei), who is trapped with two kids of her own and a violent, abusive husband from whom she is not yet divorced.
It’s an awkward situation, but the Fowlers are trying to be patient, understanding and modern. Frank tells his worried parents that “it’s just a summer thing,” but while Matt looks the other way, Ruth insists the infatuation must end before it goes too far. Suddenly, the idyllic Fowlers are shaken out of the maple trees when Frank is murdered in a jealous rage by Natalie’s estranged husband. From this point on, the film illuminates every nuance of a punishing tragedy with stunning poise, a truly affecting plot and refined, provocative performances, as the Fowlers grow divisive in their grief, then disillusioned with an ineffectual judicial system that defeats them at every turn. At the hearing, Natalie fails to deliver the crucial testimony necessary for a murder conviction, Frank’s killer is released on bail, the criminal trial is postponed, the case is obscured under a mountain of red tape and the wheels of justice turn to rust.
People handle grief in different ways. Matt dutifully continues to empty his son’s lobster traps and lunch with sympathetic neighbors at the coffee shop; Ruth brews endless pots of tea, watches brainless TV shows without smiling and rarely says a word, dying a little more inside each day; and the town moves on. While the Fowlers hide their pain, creating a wall of silence that transforms their marriage into an empty ritual of suppression and resolve, everything around them seems unchanged. One of the most wrenching aspects of this film is the way Mr. Field juxtaposes the growing internal frustration, helplessness and despair of decent, honest, conflicted people with the sound of lawnmowers, the color of the sunset, the laughter of children. Everything outside seems normal, yet nothing will ever be the same. Then the power of Ms. Spacek’s and Mr. Wilkinson’s acting, beautifully etched till now in understatement, erupts in a critical moment of truth when the dam bursts at last. In a scalding scene, Ruth torments Matt with all of her pent-up fury, stopping just short of wrecking his life, and he holds back only the words that could wound her forever. It’s like an emotional exorcism. Slowly, gradually, excruciatingly, the Fowlers orchestrate an unspoken plan to find the kind of closure denied them by a system that drags its heels and then fails them. The shocking conclusion left me numb, speechless and devastated.
The acting is splendid, but Ms. Spacek has never been more agonizingly truthful in the way she displays an acute perception of the everyday details of domestic life. In her moist eyes and body language, she also reflects how the most casual routines can unleash reservoirs of feeling following the loss of a loved one. Her face reveals myriad emotions, even without dialogue. She is simply phenomenal. The realism of Mr. Wilkinson’s uncluttered sweetness and the subtlety of Ms. Tomei’s own unacknowledged mourning as an outsider are equally astonishing. And Todd Field is as skillful at depicting softball games and backyard cookouts as he is at the big dramatic confrontations. Balancing every challenging element, he emerges as a warm and careful director of such serious range, elegance and introspection that it’s impossible to overestimate the importance of his vision and insight. In the Bedroom is a profound work of masterful and confident restraint, but its impact is overwhelming. A daring, rewarding film, it is undeniably disturbing-but in these unpredictable times, when grief has become a first-hand experience in the daily lives of so many, no film could be more perceptive or relevant. I have seen it twice, and it haunts me still.
Two Hunks, No Action
Spy Game stars Robert Redford, the older man every woman wants, and Brad Pitt, the younger man every woman’s daughter wants. Is the screen big enough to hold them both? Spy Game is a poor test. It’s so big and noisy and scattered (not to mention ridiculously complicated) that they almost get lost in the confusion. It’s also not much of a challenge.
The story of the young C.I.A. operative in trouble and the old C.I.A. veteran who has 24 hours to rescue him is so old it’s hairy, and you’ve seen it a hundred times before. Instead of the word “spy,” just substitute “cop,” “firefighter” or “soldier” and you get the drill. Anyone could play these parts, but the hope of action director Tony Scott is that the commercial appeal of Messrs. Redford and Pitt will elevate the mundane to something of a box-office lure. I say good luck to them all at the bank, but Spy Game is still a yawn, and the two glamour boys (who, by the way, look awful) are both snoring.
Mr. Redford, whose wrinkled face looks like a map of Afghanistan, is Nathan Muir, a secret agent from the good old James Bond years who is one day away from retirement (think Jack Nicholson in The Pledge ) when he finds out that Tom (Boy Scout) Bishop (Mr. Pitt)-the protégé he discovered as a sharpshooter in Vietnam-has been arrested in China and charged with espionage. Muir has 24 hours to rescue Tom before he’s executed. The C.I.A., which has disintegrated since the Cold War, is in an embarrassing position: The President’s trip to China for trade negotiations is one week away. Trying to save the life of one rogue spy would be a public-relations risk.
Tom was always a maverick cowboy who couldn’t obey orders. Who cares if the Chinese carve him up for chop suey in a rat-infested prison in the middle of a smallpox epidemic? “You go off the reservation, I will not come after you” was Muir’s biggest threat. But it’s the one warning Boy Scout ignored. So it’s up to Muir to outwit his superiors, save his favorite student, avoid an international incident and-this being a Robert Redford movie-demonstrate some patriotism when the clock is ticking and the chips are down. The plot is simplicity itself. But for more than two hours, we jump from the Chinese dungeon where Tom is being beaten to dog meat (played by a Victorian prison near London), to lengthy flashbacks to West Germany (played by Budapest), Vietnam and war-torn Beirut (both played by Morocco), to top-secret meetings at C.I.A. headquarters that look hilariously like contract negotiations over lunch at the William Morris office.
Most of the bad guys are Communists, Asians and Arabs, which is supposed to make the violent killings O.K., but there are no good guys here. It seems to me the real villains are the people at the C.I.A., all of whom are depicted as paranoid, dangerous, cold-hearted, untrustworthy, lethal and completely merciless. (Yeah, yeah, I get it: That’s why they’re called “mercenaries.”) There isn’t one government agent in this film that you would want to invite home for Christmas.
Despite the machine guns, explosions, tortures and bloodshed, Spy Game is a follow-the-dots bore with only one mild diversion: the opportunity to watch Mr. Redford and Mr. Pitt try to underplay each other. When Bob lowers his voice, Brad mumbles. When Bob cracks his jaw, Brad narrows his eyes. They both do a lot of things with lips. Hovering around in the background, in cameos destined to bring some sign of life to the proceedings, are Charlotte Rampling, David Hemmings, Catherine McCormack, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Stephen Dillane and others. They knock themselves out trying to show how global intrigue has changed in the past 16 years. They should all have stayed home and watched CNN.