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Arts & Entertainment Preview | December 2001 | Sponsored by Chrysler
by Ella Taylor
If the loss of a child is one of the worst things that can happen to someone, it can be one of the best things that can happen to the box office of a movie on the subject. In the Bedroom, a feature debut by the actor Todd Field, was a runaway hit with audiences at both the Sundance and Toronto film festivals this year, and I'll be surprised if the film doesn't do brisk art-house business. The first hour of this quiet study in human behavior under pressure establishes, detail by small detail, the small-town life of an ordinary Maine couple (played by Sissy Spacek and the English actor Tom Wilkinson) and their only son (Nick Stahl), who's spending his summer earning money as a lobsterman to pay for graduate school, while romancing a local single mother (Marisa Tomei). The second hour examines how the family unravels when the son suddenly dies under horrifying circumstances. In the Bedroom fairly oozes sincerity: the acting is good; the cinematography is lush with a graceful sense of place; the direction is sensitive almost to a fault. Yet the drama labors under a screenplay (by Rob Festinger and Field, adapted from a story by Andre Dubus) full of expository topic sentences and clinical-psychological bromides. There's something predictable and orderly about the evolving marital pain, as if the movie were doggedly following a therapy manual on the stages of grief. The movie proceeds with a studied tastefulness that renders preposterous the florid final act of a soap opera scrambling to remake itself as a thriller.
Marisa Tomei, Sissy Spacek, and Christopher Adams, in In the Bedroom
Line of Fire
Absurdist black comedy has become the currency of Bosnian filmmakers' efforts to address the tragedy of their recurring wars, and Danis Tanovic's No Man's Land is no exception. The movie unfolds in the heavy stillness of a lovely summer day, counterpointed by the hair-trigger tempers of two soldiers, a Bosnian and a Serb (played by Branko Djuric and Rene Bitorajac), who are trapped in a trench between enemy lines during the Bosnian war. A third soldier, whom they'd taken for dead, lies wounded in the trench, atop a bomb spring-loaded to explode if he moves an inch. Complicating the standoff are a French UN sergeant (Georges Siatidis) who's trying to help despite orders from on high to stay out of it, and an aggressive British television journalist (Katrin Cartlidge, giving an amusing imitation of CNN reporter Christiane Amanpour) who threatens to expose the inaction of the United Nations Protection Forces (UNPROFOR). Tanovic adroitly manipulates the movie's pacing to reflect the surreally disjunctive patterns of a war between former neighbors which has escaped the control of all its factions. No Man's Land has an intimacy and immediacy that enlists our sympathies for both sides. That is its strength, and also its weakness. Like so many well-meaning makers of antiwar films, Tanovic shows himself unwilling to grapple with the specifics of this particular war, or to point the finger at anyone but—rather irrelevantly—a clownish UNPROFOR bigwig (Simon Callow) whose only goal is to rock no boats and maintain the burnished image of his organization.
Even moviegoers with no particular sympathy for gothic horror can't fail to be stirred by The Devil's Backbone, a political allegory clothed in a ghost story, cowritten and directed by the Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (who made the haunting 1992 horror film Cronos) under the producing wing of Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar. Set in the dying days of the Spanish civil war in an austere school for orphans of Republican activists and militia, the movie centers on a new pupil, Carlos (Fernando Tielve), who finds himself trapped in the vortex of simmering internal conflicts that echo those in the world outside. Troubled by encounters with the ghost of a boy who was brutally murdered in the school, Carlos also finds himself at the mercy of the bullying leader of the boys, and of the handsome, sinister young caretaker (Eduardo Noriega), a former pupil consumed by an unspecified rage and bitterness toward the school that took him in. Like the unexploded bomb that sits in the school courtyard, the school is an inferno waiting to happen, and when Carlos finds unlikely allies to help him delve into the school's murky secrets, its fragile harmony erupts into civil war. Sensitively directed by del Toro and lit with the livid radiance of a sick society by cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, the movie elaborates with terrifying intelligence and mournful poetry the idea of the ghost as "a tragedy condemned to repeat itself again and again."
Ella Taylor is a film critic for LA Weekly.
Photograph from In the Bedroom: John Clifford.
Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.