Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Of lobsters and men

If you are reading this on Valentine’s Day and you were hoping for some insights into how to handle your romantic relationship(s), I’m sorry. I exhausted all my knowledge in that area last year. So you will have to go back and read that column.

And, if you were expecting me to pick up on my discussion of why I thought the TV series Dark Shadows was so great, keep waiting. Your patience will be rewarded. But not this week.

Or maybe you thought that I would delve into an in-depth discussion of the Academy Award nominations. Maybe next week.

Right now, I just have to talk (more, and belatedly) about In the Bedroom. Never before can I remember hearing so much about a movie before I saw it and, upon seeing it, being so surprised. And I mean by the ending. The first three-quarters of the film can’t be too much of a surprise to anyone who has even casually glanced at any reviews of the film.

To have any serious discussion of the movie, I will necessarily have to allude to the plot in detail, so consider this your spoiler warning. I implore you to read no further if you have not seen the movie. Or ever expect to.

My first reaction to the film’s final minutes was utter confusion and annoyance. When I realized that Tom Wilkinson’s character (Matt) was actually going to murder his son’s killer, I seriously thought that we were seeing a dream sequence, some sort of revenge fantasy. When I realized that this wasn’t the case, I was stunned, since I felt that I had gotten to know Matt and didn’t think him capable of such an act. Even more shocking was the fact that his wife Ruth (Sissy Spacek) knew about the plot and condoned it. In the end, I found I didn’t know these characters as well as I thought—just as the tragedy of their son’s death revealed that they didn’t know each other as well as they thought.

We realize that this film, like all good films, has manipulated us. Director Todd Field has deliberately omitted many potential key scenes. All the acts of violence committed by Richard (William Mapother) happen off-screen—even the pivotal one, where he shoots Frank. (The sight of part of Frank’s face blown away is an eerie echo of Nick Stahl’s first big screen role, opposite Mel Gibson in The Man Without a Face, which also took place in Maine. Young Stahl was also at the center of yet another violent and emotionally wrenching drama, Tim Blake Nelson’s Eye of God.) Like the Fowlers, we have no question about what happened between Richard and Frank, but like them we have filled in the gap ourselves. And we have made assumptions about the Fowlers themselves, based on incomplete knowledge.

The more I thought about this movie afterwards, the more it gradually dawned on me what it is really about. Not to be too clinical about it, but this film is all about DNA. This fact is suggested slyly by its title. It’s impossible to think of this movie having the same impact if it carried the title of its source story by Andre Dubus, Killings. A name like In the Bedroom was likely to draw in a certain number of viewers with the titillating promise of sex. Most reviews I read pointed out (correctly) that this was misleading and suggested that the title really referred to the place where a couple’s most intimate conversations occur. But that’s not exactly right either. After all, Matt and Ruth have their biggest and most emotional verbal encounter in the living room. No, the key is really in an early scene where Matt explains to a young boy, who may possibly become his step-grandson, that the “bedroom” is a name for a chamber in a lobster trap and that, when two male lobsters wind up in the same “bedroom,” one of them frequently gets maimed. This reference to animal nature is later echoed twice. After Frank is killed, a lobster injures Matt’s finger. In the film’s final scene, Matt removes the bandage from his finger and contemplates the injury. The ending is ambiguous and we don’t know exactly what is going through Matt’s mind, but it’s a certainty that he’s realizing that he and the lobster aren’t that different. He has a haunted look in his eyes that is reminiscent of Jon Voight’s at the end of John Boorman’s 1972 film about nature and survival, Deliverance.

Why do male lobsters fight? Simply put, in order to be the one that passes on its DNA. It is no accident that in this story Frank is an only child. His parents’ differing reactions to his affair with the married-but-separated Natalie (Marisa Tomei) underscore two basic natural impulses. The father takes a vicarious pleasure in the son’s sexual activity. What is this if not a primal urge to see his DNA passed on? The practical mother, on the other hand, does not like the situation. She surely realizes that, as a mother of two, Natalie may not want to have more children. She may well represent a DNA dead-end.

In the worst possible outcome, the son is killed, and the parents realize that they are now the end of their line. This is highlighted quite skillfully in a scene where Ruth’s friend Katie thoughtlessly shares a family joke with Ruth about the fact that Katie and her husband have a large number of grandchildren. “We’ll never die out,” she chuckles—until she realizes what she has said.

Matt and Ruth can’t bring back their dead son, and they are past the point of having another child. Galling them further is the sight of seeing their son’s killer free on bail. Not only does he have ample opportunity to pass on his DNA, but he already has, in his two sons. Seeing the killer’s family’s name on one of his father’s boats is only another painful reminder of how the Strout line is flourishing while the Fowler line is at an end. The primal urge is to lash out, even though it serves no practical purpose.

What makes the film haunting is the fact that we don’t know exactly what is going through Matt’s mind at the end. But he definitely shows no signs of having his anguish soothed. Ruth, on the other hand, seems downright chipper upon knowing the deed is done. It is a cliché to say that the female is the deadlier of the species, but in Ruth Fowler (even though she didn’t participate directly in the revenge) we suspect it may be true. There is a bit of Lady Macbeth in her. When Natalie finally seeks her out, we want Ruth to show her some sympathy. Instead, she delivers a slap—the one violent act shown on screen. Since this is a movie, we think Ruth will eventually come around. But such thoughts only go to show that we don’t yet really understand Ruth.

In another subtle, artful touch, Ruth and the chorus she directs have been rehearsing a song from the Balkans. She even makes the point that people in the Balkans aren’t really any different from people in Maine. Given the Balkans’ history, this is more than a little meaningful.

The film provides no easy moral lesson. So, of course, it will be up to politicos to find ways to spin it. Liberals can point out that Matt’s revenge has brought him no real relief. And they can also speculate on how the existence of stricter gun laws might have changed the story. Conservatives can point to the way the justice system seems to favor the criminal over victims and survivors. And Americans in general can continue to ponder their primal urges for revenge when it comes to dealing with terrorists, some of whom—contrary to everything we know about nature—seem quite content to end their own line of DNA.

-S.L., 14 February 2002

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