Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Todd Field’s Tár appears to have nearly played out its theatrical run, and perhaps its award-gathering chances. Which is too bad; I think it is a fascinating piece, ambiguous and strange, tapping to the beat of its own measured metronome. Cate Blanchett does something very difficult, portraying a character whose false front is so practiced she has barely an authentic moment in the entire film.
Field, a veteran actor (did his stint in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut influence the conception of Blanchett’s the-artist-is-god character?), directed two movies before Tár, In the Bedroom (2001) and Little Children (2006). My reviews of both films, originally published in The Herald, are included below. I also interviewed Field when Little Children came out, and I’ll be damned if I know where that piece is; but I can report that the director was an engaging talker, thoughtful and very calm.
In the Bedroom
The lives of ordinary people come in for microscopic examination in In the Bedroom, a quietly shattering new drama. This modestly budgeted picture was the talk of the Sundance Film Festival at the beginning of the year, and it’s been winning prizes from critics at the end. The New York Film Critics Circle gave acting awards to Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson, and the L.A. critics tapped Spacek and the film for best picture.
The accolades are deserved. Especially as an actors’ showcase, this movie is a rare thing.
The setting is the coast of Maine. Spacek plays a music teacher; Wilkinson is her husband, a doctor who grew up in the lobstering business. (“In the bedroom,” whatever its symbolic meanings may suggest, is a term relating to lobster cages.) Their 21-year-old son Frank (Nick Stahl) is home for the summer and dating an older woman with kids, Natalie (Marisa Tomei). His mother is concerned about the liaison, but Frank shrugs off her worries.
Something terrible happens, which changes all their lives. The movie becomes a study of two things: How to live with grief, and the urge for justice when the system is compromised.
In the Bedroom is based on a short story called Killings, by Andre Dubus, a gifted writer who died in 1999. It was adapted by the first-time director, Todd Field.
Field is better known as an actor, having played Tom Cruise’s musician friend in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. There may be a touch of the Kubrick influence in In the Bedroom, as the film has a serious, very slow style. But where Kubrick worked out of irony and design, Field’s attitude is all about humanism and acting. He’s got a good eye for telling details that reveal something true about people in a pressure cooker.
For instance, when the husband and wife played by Spacek and Wilkinson finally let their New England reserve go and have a hurtful shouting match, their argument is interrupted by a little girl selling candy bars at the front door. When they resume, the intensity has cleared and they are apologetic. That’s a beautifully observed sequence, very true to the rise and fall of an emotional blow-out.
At times the movie is a little fussy in its approach, and it’s probably been a bit overpraised by critics starved for adult drama. But the actors fill in the gaps. Spacek gives her best performance in years, not shirking on her character’s controlling nature, and English actor Wilkinson (from The Full Monty) is especially good, as a decent man whose passivity has terrible consequences. Marisa Tomei is fittingly forlorn, and as her husband, William Mapother is a truly creepy presence. He’s the brother of Tom Cruise, whom he only slightly resembles (he’s homely and tall, whereas Cruise is – well, you know what Tom Cruise is).
Because it is so muted so much of the time, In the Bedroom jumps off the screen when something violent happens. Despite its delicacy, this is one movie with the power to shock.
Quiet and observant, as clean as a neighborhood without sidewalks, Little Children works a thoughtful variation on a familiar subject: lust and angst in the suburbs.
The film is based on a novel by Tom Perrotta, and it deliberately courts a literary style (even to the point of having a narrator who sounds as though he’s reading a book-on-tape for a soccer mom in her SUV). It examines the effects of two eruptions in a complacent little community.
One eruption is visible, the other secret. The obvious one is that a convicted child molester (Jackie Earle Haley) has returned home to live with his mother. The local community is perturbed about this, especially a weirdly furious neighbor (Noah Emmerich). We spend more time pondering the secret adultery undertaken by a restless housewife named Sarah (Kate Winslet) and a stay-at-home dad named Brad (Patrick Wilson). Like the measured, untroubled voice of the narrator, the film considers this affair with a detached attitude – perhaps skeptical, certainly amused.
Sarah and Brad have spouses and children, which means their summerlong meetings at a public pool are charged with a formal, restrained kind of longing. The film takes an admirable amount of time to let this feeling simmer.
Director Todd Field previously made the somber and satisfying In the Bedroom, which similarly looked at the chaos beneath a well-maintained lawn. He acted for Stanley Kubrick once (in Eyes Wide Shut) and his films have a stately feel reminiscent of Kubrick – although Field’s non-judgmental view of people reads as more sympathetic than Kubrick’s glacial gaze.
The film is even-handed and respectful toward this group of characters, almost to a fault. I couldn’t stay as interested in Emmerich’s character as the others, but the movie devotes a great deal of time to him.
The film is actor-intensive. Patrick Wilson (from the recent Hard Candy) is maddeningly unresolved as Brad, and I mean that as a compliment. Jennifer Connelly and Gregg Edelman have less to do as the spouses, but are fine. Jackie Earle Haley, the former Bad News Bears kid star (out of movies for years before All the King’s Men), is truly weird and unsettling as the pedophile.
But this film rests on a magnificent performance by Kate Winslet. If there were any doubts that Winslet has become one of the treasures of 21st-century movie acting, this film should erase them: Her performance is so full of the tiniest shifts in feeling and thought that you feel as though you can read a world on her face. She’s an intelligent actress who understands intelligent characters can do stupid things.
Which brings us to the title, which is clearly meant to refer not to children, but to adults. Their childishness is on full display, even if the playground is bigger.
December 2, 2022
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.