In the Bedroom Is Lame, Its Characters Clueless

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"Llorando," Rebekah Del Rio's Spanish a cappella performance of Roy Orbison's "Crying" in Mulholland Drive, is hair-raising?even when you listen to it later on the soundtrack CD. It conveys American sorrow, the same subject poorly treated in the new Sundance-acclaimed movie In the Bedroom. Director Todd Field and stars Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson rely on Actors' Studio cliches (after all they're actors) that stave off the dread implications of In the Bedroom's plot. Instead of Mulholland Drive's pure, direct emotion, they offer fake subtlety: Jumbotron-sized details of marital disaffection?suppressed sexual temptation, simmering resentment and the same old plate-smashing that have embarrassed domestic melodramas since Ordinary People.

Yet In the Bedroom's routine dramaturgy is glossed with portentousness. As Matt and Ruth Fowler, Wilkinson and Spacek play a Maine doctor and his choirmaster wife who fall apart after their son Frank (Nick Stahl) becomes involved with a local hoochie divorcee (Marisa Tomei). Field delays the obvious with an overextended expositionary first hour. Then, as if sexual jealousy weren't revealing enough, In the Bedroom takes the latest fashionable twist: using murder to focus how Americans deal with anxiety. Instead of contemplating the horror of death, this insensitive gimmick (as in A Simple Plan and Affliction) suggests that something loathsome and cruel seethes in our culture, but shallow filmmaking only exploits it. Not clarifying the tiny offenses, evasive habits and malingering betrayals in some relationships, Field (adapting a story by Andre Dubus) steps away from the very stuff of family dramas and indulges unenlightening morbidity.

This is wilder than Mulholland Drive, yet far less defensible. After the harrowing, quiet truth of Altman's Short Cuts (Anne Archer leaves her postcoital bed when her husband Fred Ward reveals his callous response to death), In the Bedroom seems the desiccated result of filmmaking that avoids moral confrontation. Broken feelings aren't considered sexy enough to get a rise out of Sundance audiences (where In the Bedroom, like the similarly fatuous The Deep End, was taken seriously) yet the macho alternative in these vengeful domestic melodramas merely offers distraction. Field's emphasis on an average, malice-breeding community only contributes to American sorrow. The greatness of "Llorando" in Mulholland Drive?and why it shakes up everything in film culture to come after it?derives from David Lynch confronting the idea of American (Hollywood) normalcy. Instead of hiding behind the latest narrative constructs, Lynch's deconstructed storytelling uses pop culture to actually penetrate American sorrow.

Reworking soap opera conventions and pop self-consciousness in the extraordinary Twin Peaks gave Lynch a fresh gauge of the shock and horror of murder. That's what wiped Lynch out. Though his creativity was depleted?and it took him 10 years to get his bearings?the Twin Peaks tv series still stands as the foremost modern response to dread reality, of catastrophe (serial killing, domestic violence, outre alienation), invading the home. Now Lynch not only sees through platitudinous genres (and so discards the conventions, going for dream logic in Mulholland Drive), he also shows how vintage pop carries the vestiges of morality. And, unlike Field, he trusts that we're ready to move forward.

It's not simply nostalgic when Lynch's 60s-era music cues, dress styles?even the whitebread countenances of his ready-to-be-spoiled protagonists?communicate through our complicated cultural heritage. (Two black backup singers appearing in Mulholland Drive's lip-sync universe are a nonracist sign that America's old-fashioned cultural hegemony has been disturbed.) The complicated, non-English version of "Crying" is a powerful challenge. Roy Orbison's original composition can be heard like new; the memory of his familiar version haunts in Del Rio's reverb. Her raw interpretation brings the chestnut up to date, making its pain psychic as well as social. She expresses the suffering that Betty/Naomi Watts holds in.

The same pop-cultural retrieval happens with "I've Told Every Little Star"; it's an advance over Lynch's previous freakish use of "In Dreams" and "Blue Velvet." The voluptuous self-pity that Orbison's thin-operatic, 60s mode raised to art is a familiar, recognizable reach for catharsis?a virtue the makers of In the Bedroom can't conceive. Orbison transformed sadness. In this era, when most pop insists we forget sadness, Lynch reuses pop to remind us it is an inescapable part of life. Del Rio, seen in Mulholland Drive's tacky karaoke theater, takes "Llorando" past camp. Its excitement is partly nostalgic, but her intense emotion makes the song come to immediate life. Del Rio sounds terrified, but she's also mourning something, and that, Lynch knows, is our culture's sense of innocence, a luxury we can no longer afford.


Not every cultural development is progressive. In the Bedroom's normalization of violence is so lame, you wonder how its creative hub of actors, supposedly trained in theater, could have ignored precedents from Ibsen and Strindberg to Bergman, Sirk, Cassavetes, Altman and Mike Leigh, where domestic and social discord was observed?indeed charted?to its psychic roots. For them to pretend they've discovered some new truth about the American character while simultaneously ignoring its cultural heritage is fatuous. Have the Fowler family no clue of their impending crisis from tv, movies, country music or literature? Or that their distress (Matt's temptation, Ruth's haughtiness, son Frank's naivete) is actually comically banal? Field casts Wilkinson (from The Full Monty) with the same misguided pretense as Tilda Swinton's casting in The Deep End: that a British actor will provide impeccable nuance. Actually, Wilkinson lacks credibility (though his New England accent beats Michael Caine's in The Cider House Rules). Spacek's fairly colorless performance is more exact, but where's that hand-to-heart coordination, the Delsartian flourish of her emoting in Carrie? Her gnomic authenticity in 3 Women? Or that priceless comic moment in Blast from the Past when Spacek played a housewife responding to a new worry by re-wiping the surface of her kitchen counter? Publicists are already touting Spacek's Oscar chances, but there is no greater movie acting this year than Del Rio's (and Naomi Watts'). Their tandem performance during "Llorando" not only elevates Mulholland Drive, it tears apart the moral fakery taking place In the Bedroom.

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