Monday, January 18, 2010

In the Bedroom -- relationships and tragedies

Director: Todd Field, 2001.

In the Bedroom is a story of a normal family in a small town in Maine. But Todd Field pulls back the bedroom curtains so we can see how normal this family is, and how they deal with misfortune and unfairness. It is a film about relationships and tragedies.

Field takes his time establishing context and character. The film seems small and quiet, much like the fishing town itself. With minimal music, it forces the viewer to watch and engage with his or her own emotions, not those manufactured by the vibrant violin strings of melodrama.

Matt (Tom Wilkinson, Duplicity) and Ruth Fowler (Sissy Spacek) are the married couple at the heart fo the film. The Fowlers have one son, Frank (Nick Stahl), a student applying to grad school whose architectural ambitions are the dreams that keep the Fowlers humdrum lives centered.

Home from college for the summer, Frank is in love with Natalie Strout (Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler), an older woman and young mother who is soon-to-be-divorced from her abusive husband Richard (William Mapother). This relationship between Frank and Natalie is bittersweet. Frank sees it as true love. He is willing to defer his college plans for her, and as noble and chivalric as this seems, Natalie recognizes the fantasy that it is. Richard, though, cannot bear to see his wife with another man, even if he is not acting as her husband.

The title refers to the rear compartment of a lobster trap known as the "bedroom," which can only hold up to two lobsters before they begin to turn on each other. Three spells trouble. In a lobster fishing village this was well known. But it portends the storm that brews in the relationships involving three people. And then for Matt and Ruth, it perhaps touches on the fragility of their relationship: their only meaningful communications seem to take place in the bedroom.

One of the beauties of the film is in its contrast of Frank's parents. Matt is the town doctor. Low key and quiet, he stoically deals with life, plodding on, seemingly unphased. His tears are private tears, alone and apart. Ruth, on the other hand, is a teacher and the school's choir leader. She is vocal in her feelings, always ready to opine and judge. Perhaps it is the opposites of their character that drew them together.

Their relationship with Frank is key. Matt reaches out to his only son. He fishes with him on his crabbing runs when he can. He walks casually to the dock at lunch-times to see his son in fatherly visits, quietly spending time with him. Ruth unwittingly pushes Frank away with her constant badgering and belittling. She thinks that as a mother she knows what is best for him, and she is always seeking to let him know this.

How do we relate to our children? Though neither is perfect, Matt is clearly tighter with Frank. Do we reach out, seeking to be with our kids when they are doing what they enjoy? Are we willing to let them make their own decisions, reaping the benefits or experiencing the consequences of their choices, even if we think we know better? At some point, our children will be like Frank, old enough to decide for themselves what they want to do with their lives. At that point, we have to hope that our parenting was the best it could be. Having trained them in the way they should go, we can only pray that they will not depart from the right path (Prov. 22:6).

Frank's relationship with Natalie also proves to be a point of contention between his parents, the sword that divides them from one another after years of marriage. In an uncharacteristic outburst, Matt yells at Ruth: "He went there because of you. Because you are so controlling, so overbearing, so angry . . . You are so unforgiving." He blames his wife's unforgiving spirit and bitterness for driving Frank away from them.

Anger, unforgiveness and guilt. These are emotions that we store up, telling ourselves we have every right to feel this way. What we don't see is the effect they are having on ourselves and on those around us. They warp our perspective and shrivel our souls. We become like Ruth, twisted and bitter. The only antidote or answer is to forgive. This is not easy or cheap. It costs us the price of vengeance as we release them and allow justice and vengeance to be placed in the hands of God: " 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay,' says the Lord" (Rom. 12:19). But only by letting go can we experience the freedom to grow in the relationship. The apostle Paul command us who have experienced the forgiveness of the Lord Jesus Christ: "Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you" (Col. 3:13).

However, emotions rise and tragedy strikes. When this happens, justice and fairness are called into question. Ruth's anger turns to bitterness and becomes a beast that drives and consumes her. In the middle of the small-town normality the Fowler's monster becomes untamable.

When we see wrong going unpunished, when we feel justice trampled underfoot with no recourse, what do we do? Do we accept our "fate"? Or do we seek to take matters into our own hands? There is a monster that lurks near each of us, even inside us. We are all capable of things unthinkable. At the very beginning, God said to Cain, "sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it" (Gen. 4:7). Are we ready?

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

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