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No way out 

Subtle family drama falls short of its potential

Sissy Spacek plays Brown-educated music teacher Ruth Fowler, who's carved out a peaceful, prosperous life in Camden, Maine, with her quiet doctor husband and ambitious, gifted son in actor-turned-director Todd Field's debut film. Like another maternal thriller, The Deep End, In the Bedroom's jumping off point is a child's romantic involvement with a dangerous social lesser, which unleashes a torrent of nearly feral maternal protectiveness.

Ruth's refined, educated sensibility is clearly set on edge when her only son Frank (Nick Stahl) becomes involved with working-class damsel-in-distress Natalie (Marisa Tomei), who is trying to raise two young boys while deflecting the increasingly frightening advances of her estranged, junkyard-dog mean husband.

In its best moments, In the Bedroom and its gifted, persuasive actors offer fleeting glimpses of insight into incidental aspects of the central story, which is about how parents Ruth and Matt (Tom Wilkinson) cope when their son is murdered by Natalie's ferociously stupid, jealous ex-husband Robert Strout (William Mapother).

In the Bedroom features a slip of a story by Andre Dubus, but the novice director has admirably enlarged the work in a way that is ambitious and intelligent. For instance, Spacek and co-star Tom Wilkinson, who plays a milquetoast but nuanced nice guy with a secret heart, have been given plenty of room to explore their characters in this complicated story of marriage, class relations, a rotten legal system and the devastation of a child's death.

But the talented Field never seems able to live up to the chunk of emotional meat he has bitten off, and the film often feels watery and incomplete -- more admirable for its earnest, thoughtful tone than for its dramatic success. In a short time, the film has become a kind of poster child for "smart," "adult," "sensitive" filmmaking about big issues like Grief and Vengeance, which only demonstrates how hungry audiences are for grown-up films.

Field is clearly trying for a more intellectual, deeply felt effect than your usual adult melodrama, but some of that cerebral quality fails when you add sloppy characterizations into the equation like Mapother's home-wrecking ogre, who's as inanimate and uninspired as the killer semi in Joy Ride. With his badly dyed blond hair and pathetic sports hero past, he's a caricature of a caricature, an Eric Roberts Star 80 mega-loser who takes out all of his shabby failures on the wife he sees leaving his sadsack ranks.

The ellipsis is director Todd Field's favored storytelling technique -- a technique founded on what isn't said and what isn't represented. Thus characters continually gaze out from behind sheer drapes, get lost in reveries at stoplights and gorge on the sedatives of television and alcohol. Field privileges such moments because of the very real sense they give us of the more ordinary ways grief manifests itself. In Bedroom, grief registers not in rages and bluster, but in distraction, idees fixe and a sleepwalking stupor that makes clear how profound a blow their son's death has dealt to the Fowlers' equilibrium.

But there are only so many times you can show such moments of frozen pain until the device begins to lose its effectiveness. Many manifestations of the Fowler grief become a little too decorative and upper middle-class precious -- like the girl's choir Ruth is continually rehearsing, its sad, lamenting chorus putting a fine point on the film's melodrama. As with the film's most obvious inspiration, the endlessly repeated strains of Pachelbel's "Canon" in Ordinary People, Bedroom can veer into a pretentious expression of bourgeois angst.

The potential for unrealized greatness in In the Bedroom is certainly there, though it often evokes more effective examinations of blocked communication and impacted anger like Paul Schrader's Affliction, John Sayles' understated, human dramas or the observational beauty of small, un-extraordinary lives in You Can Count on Me.

In the Bedroom is probably too amorphous and arrhythmic to win the sympathies of a larger audience beyond the NPR crowd, which is unfortunate considering how effectively it speaks to a current national climate. Wilkinson's Matt Fowler is a Charles Bronson for a mellower, post-Sept. 11 age, a vigilante in John Updike country who appears to be a placid, composed, refined man of his class, but whose rage -- quietly fueled by anguish and an inhumane legal system -- changes from distraction to the fierce brutality of a sleeping giant.

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