The Heart, The Rule of Law
And In The Bedroom
by Taunya Lovell Banks
Todd Field's film In The
Bedroom reminds me why I periodically lend friends my dog-eared
copy of HOW TO PARENT ADULT CHILDREN. Sometimes we are forced
to sit back helplessly and watch our adult children head for
disaster. Almost from the outset, In the Bedroom effectively
conveys this sense of foreboding. So immediately did I bond with
Ruth Fowler (Sissy Spacek) and Dr. Matt Fowler (Tom Wilkinson),
the parents of Frank Fowler (Nick Stahl), whose romance with
Natalie Strout (Marisa Tomei) forms the core of the film's story,
that by the end, I was ready to abandon the rule of law.
the opening scene, Field gives the viewer many clues to prepare
us for the tragic turn of events. First clue, there is the summer
romance between Frank, the college bound youth so full of promise,
and Natalie, the slightly older working class woman with two
adorable young boys. Second clue, when Natalie professes her
love, Frank answers only, "I know." Third clue, Natalie
also has a spooky estranged husband, Richard (William Mapother).
Finally, Field effectively
uses the camera to convey both a physical and familial tranquility.
In The Bedroom is set in an incredibly beautiful Maine
fishing community. We meet the Fowler family at a summer barbeque
that suggests a surface familial tranquility that soon explodes.
Thus, near the film's end, the tranquil town setting that forms
the backdrop for the concert by Ruth Fowler's choral group, rings
false. Even Matt Fowler is too disturbed to stay for the concert.
In the first part of the film
we are forced to watch helplessly the events we know in our hearts
will unfold. Then we are left mutely grieving in a darkened theater
at Frank's senseless death and the Fowler's loss. So fully have
we been drawn into this family that our own hearts are breaking.
We have entered an emotional labyrinth.
Field deftly puts us inside
the skin of Frank's parents while simultaneously making us spectators
to the potential unraveling of the Fowler marriage. They are
unable to grieve together, or even talk to each other about their
loss. The Fowlers, your quintessential law-abiding parents -
true believers in the rule of law -- are frustrated by the realities
of our criminal justice system. Then the prosecutor tells them
that the evidence will not support a murder charge, and that
the killer might even convince a jury that Frank's death was
an accident. Their alienation grows with the seeming indifference
and impatience of the prosecutor pictured jingling the change
in his pocket. The breakdown in the Fowlers' faith in the criminal
justice system mirrors the breakdown in their own marriage.
When the killer is released
on bail, we are reminded what it is like to live in the same
small community as your son's killer. The stunning beauty and
comforting tranquillity of this coastal Maine community is shattered.
The killer is everywhere, it seems, except prison. As a result,
we can almost feel Ruth Fowler's fear and revulsion, but what
can she or Matt do?
As we know from numerous real-life
examples, criminal defendants with money or wealthy parents can
delay being brought to justice. Money also can temper the degree
of punishment. While it is hard not to be seduced into cheering
for Matt Fowler's solution to his anguish and crumbling marriage,
as a lawyer, I am deeply troubled by the film's final message
-- self help, the arbitrary use of power.
Yet allusions to the rule of
law, defined by BLACK'S LAW DICTIONARY as "the supremacy
of regular, as opposed to arbitrary power," are everywhere
in the first part of the film. The law dictates the terms and
conditions of a child visitation arrangement that Richard Strout
disregards with impunity. Nothing happens when Richard breaks
into Natalie's house, nor later when he trashes the house. Frank,
with his father's support, disregards his mother's demand that
he call the police following a severe beating.
The law, whether in the form
of the police or a court order while available, is never used.
Yet vigilante justice is not the answer to a criminal justice
system that is slow, often inept and too often favors wealthy
or well-connected criminals. Director Todd Reid understands and
effectively plays on the strong human instinct for revenge because
it makes great drama. At the same time Reid's scenario sends
potentially harmful messages to a public already alienated from
the criminal justice system. The need to thwart, or at least
defuse, humans' instinct for revenge is one reason why the criminal
justice system must operate in ways that instill public confidence.
In the end it is unclear whether
Reid is arguing for or against the rule of law. Viewers are left
wondering whether the outcome would have been different had either
Frank or Natalie resorted to the available legal remedies. Also
left ambiguous is the import of Matt's final comment about the
photograph on Richard's wall. Did Natalie knowingly set Frank
up? The final ambiguity is whether Matt Fowler's final act redeems
his marriage or creates an irreparable tear. Ambiguity in a film
is not necessarily bad, but In The Bedroom, while good
viewing, sends a somewhat mixed message about the battle between
the rule of law and rules of the heart.
Posted February 4, 2002