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Good with many loose ends

``IN THE Bedroom" is not a great film. But it is still one of a kind this year because it is, refreshingly, about ordinary people in a movie season crowded with geniuses, hobbits, wizards, and showgirls. The critics, of course, knew that ``In the Bedroom" would not win Best Film even though they were rooting for it. And now that a bootleg version of the film has hit our libraries, we can see why the critics had been saying all along that it wouldn't win though it deserved to.

``In the Bedroom" is a wrenchingly acted, unhurried, subtle little family drama. It is also too low key, too open ended, too unresolved, too disturbing. And it is not American Beauty - it isn't clever or contemporary or twisted or pleasingly quirky. The first 20 minutes or so is deceptive: you could almost mistake it for a tasteful, plodding Hallmark movie that seems to be in no hurry to get on with the story, content with showing us feel-good vignettes of family life. And then it explodes. Quietly.

Dr. Fowler (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife (Sissy Spacek), who teaches choral music at the local school, are a respected and admired family in Camden, Maine, a small New England town. Their only child, a son whom they love very much, is about to leave home to go away to college. They are also nervous and worried for him. The stage is set for something to happen that will change their lives. I don't want to give away the plot but I'll say this much: the film is honest and unexpected till the very end. It is the film's ending, in fact, that made it out of Oscar bounds and lifts the film from being just another tasteful drama to a suspenseful moral tale with all the tragic force of a Greek drama. It goes the opposite way of most family dramas - showing us that tragedy may not always bring people together that it might destroy them. Or reveal them to be cruel, unforgiving, violent, vengeful and murderous.

The film envelops itself in silence, lingering on empty rooms with empty tables and chairs, characters brooding quietly, cigarette smoke curling around their lips. In a premiere magazine interview, the film's director, Todd Field, seems genuinely not to care at the film's commercial and critical success. He sounds (at least for the moment) like that rare thing in Hollywood - a film-maker who wants to make a film with as much artistic integrity as he can get away with, an artiste concerned only with his art. We know him better as the actor who played the mysterious pianist at that wild New Year party in Stanley Kubrick's ``Eyes Wide Shut." The one in the white tux who gives Tom Cruise the secret password.

Field makes his debut with ``In the Bedroom," which is based on a short story, ``Killings" by Andre Dubus (pronounced du-Buse), an American writer who died in 1999. "Like Chekov," noted Village Voice, "Dubus's best stories contain the arc of a whole life in the language of specific moments." Field admired his stories and thought he could make a good film from them. In the same way that Robert Altman made shortcuts from the stories of Raymond Carver, who, like Dubus, also wrote about regular people with regular jobs. Except, Carver's characters are no strangers to failure, cigarettes, despair and alcohol, while Dubus' characters are accomplished and smugly happy until tragedy strikes. But both writers make a kind of poetry describing quiet, obscure, intense suburban lives lived in desperation, longing and moral suspense.

Even though Dubus knew short stories don't sell, he made a living writing them. He wanted them collected in a book and published but never found a publisher. He was stubborn about not compromising and writing novels. He continued to have faith in short stories and one day found a publisher courageous enough to publish his first collection. It did not become a bestseller, of course, but it did sell modestly. Field has some of Dubus' stubbornness - he made the film on his terms and would not brook any changes or cuts from Miramax, the distributors. Like a good short story, ``In the Bedroom" leaves you emotionally and morally dangling at the end. How many movies would risk that today?



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