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Young director Todd Field shows promise In the Bedroom; veteran Brit director Ridley Scott shoots blanks in the field

Todd Field's In the Bedroom is a rare independent film that is bound to strike many intelligent filmgoers as the best movie of the year for the simple reason that it gives us so many satisfactions that kiddie-centric Hollywood long since abandoned: realistic situations, deep, complex and sometimes very painful emotions, and an execution that is the very definition of nuanced meticulousness. All of those qualities are virtues in my book too, and I mean to give the film full credit for them. Yet, in my book, In the Bedroom merits a few reservations along with the superlatives; in some ways, only the advanced degradation of Hollywood makes it seem unblemished rather than commendably ambitious.

The film was directed and co-scripted (with Rod Festinger) by Field, a young actor who played Tom Cruise's pal in Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut and Ashley Judd's romantic fatalist of a beau in Victor Nunez's Ruby in Paradise, arguably the best Southern film of the 1990s. The screenplay comes from "Killings," a story by the highly regarded Massachusetts writer Andre Dubus, who, before his death in 1999, worked with Field on adapting his dark tale to the screen.

Dubus is known as a regional writer whose stories are rooted in the culture of coastal New England, and the movie deserves praise for preserving and conveying a very specific local flavor. Set in a fishing town on the coast of Maine, it opens during an idyllic summer when Frank Fowler (Nick Stahl), awaiting his departure for college, is romancing attractive Natalie (Marisa Tomei), a divorcee roughly a decade his senior with two kids and a disgruntled ex-husband. Since he still lives at home, Frank finds his love life obliquely scrutinized by his folks, Ruth (Sissy Spacek) and Matt (Tom Wilkinson).

The older Fowlers have very different perspectives on their only son's affair. Matt, a doctor, seems bemused and, in some moments, transparently envious. Ruth, a choral director at the local high school, is wary and displeased, which in turn causes Frank to be evasive and disingenuous. He tells his mother that this is only a summer fling, but her eyes tell her differently: She can see how Frank very deliberately acts like a father to Natalie's kids, as if laying the groundwork for a future life as a family.

Although In the Bedroom is leisurely paced and long (at over two-and-a-half hours), it has a classic three-act structure, and both the first and the third acts climax with the kinds of surprises that should not be revealed in a review. While I will avoid detailing those narrative twists, it is necessary to say a few things about their significance to the structure and worth of the film.

The first surprise catapults the film into tragedy, and forces Ruth and Matt to examine their lives in the light of a loss they could not have even imagined a few weeks before. Not surprisingly, the second act is where the meat of this earnest drama lies. Blindsided by a grief that is almost undendurable, the Fowlers find themselves tossed in painfully paradoxical directions: While drawn together by the situation, they are forced apart by their reactions to it. Every small hurt and wound from a long marriage seems to reopen as a result. The two are increasingly silent and distant with each other, wary of the words that might unleash uncontrollable torrents of emotion, unsure of the limits of their own sanity.

This is rich terrain for actors, and Wilkinson and Spacek mine it with exemplary gusto and expertise (she's the odds-on favorite for this year's Best Actress Oscar). Spacek makes Ruth a coil of frustration and anger who seems to view her tragedy as a confirmation of her suspicion of life. Wilkinson's Matt--who bonds with his son over their love of the sea--cannot penetrate his wife's bitter isolation, fears that his own vicarious enjoyment of Frank's affair might have contributed to the disaster, and ultimately finds himself lured toward drastic action in a desperate attempt to mend the breach in his marriage. (The film's clever title neatly links the genesis of that action to the site of Matt's projected pleasures.)

For viewers who relish top-drawer screen acting for its own sake, the wrenching pas de deux at the center of In the Bedroom is alone worth the price of admission. Nor does it diminish the achievement of these extraordinary leads and several remarkable supporting players, I think, to say that the film's use of acting comes across overall as a bit self-conscious and rhetorical. Like other actors turned director, Field falls victim to the fallacy of naturalism, the belief that the superficial verisimilitudes of performance somehow equal (or lead to) the profundities of dramatic truth. This leads to a kind of fussy extravagance: moments of actorly detail that serve the actors more than the story, and an overall narrative bulk that seems padded with such moments.

My other main reservation concerns the turn the story takes in the last act. Not coincidentally, this is a problem linked to the film's naturalistic surface. Implicitly, the movie's opening reels and its style say this to viewers: "We're going to diverge from Hollywood phoniness and genre formulas here, and show you how ordinary small-town people deal with tragedy in real life." A commendable ambition, to be sure. Yet the film doesn't really deliver on the promise. Rather than showing us how most people actually get through such tragedies (as thousands are obliged to do annually, alas), the story reverts to its own arty version of a Hollywood genre staple: violent revenge. Field wants to have it both ways, in other words. (That the movie's true to Dubus doesn't mitigate this objection, but merely points up the contextual differences of literature and film.)

In its lyrically muted photography, its sensitivity to mood and landscape and human contradiction, In the Bedroom suggests the purposeful seriousness of Ingmar Bergman or Krzyzstof Kieslowski, or such rare American precedents as Bob Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces and Robert Redford's Ordinary People. Though Field doesn't skirt all the pitfalls that come with youthful presumption, the film's core of accomplishment makes him a fledgling director of exceptional distinction and uncommon promise.

Ridley Scott's last film, Gladiator, staged pitched battles in the arenas of ancient Rome, but was smart enough marketing-wise to include a thread of a subplot about its hero's beloved wife and kid. Scott's latest, Black Hawk Down, which might be titled Gladiator Too: Back for the Kill, is far more viscerally violent yet not nearly as savvy commercially, being all gore and zero heart. At a time when date-night audiences are crucial to the success of any mega-budget film, it has the desperate flush of a kamikaze mission. Unless I miss my guess, no more than 20 women will go to see the film. And half of those will walk out or dump their boyfriends before it's over.

Based on the bestseller by journalist Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down recounts a true story that occurred in Somalia in 1993, when several score American troops went into central Mogadishu on what looked like a manageable mission to neutralize a local wardlord, but were trapped and engaged in a firefight that lasted several hours and utlimately claimed the lives of roughly 20 Americans and several hundred Somalis. The battle's horrific outcome, including the dragging of dead American bodies through the city's streets, was credited with dulling the Clinton administration's appetite for international engagement.

There are no doubt many ways in which this incident could have been filmed. Scott has opted for an approach that might be called high-gloss magazine artiness. Rather than giving the movie a story, one that comprehends lives and feelings and (heaven forbid) political and cultural context, he jams his foot on the action/carnage pedal, making the film play like the first 25 minutes of Saving Private Ryan on steroids, drawn out to two hours plus. And rather than investing our emotions in characters, he perfunctorily sketches in a few American grunts, then sees how fast he can make us forget them in his turbo-charged symphony of bullets and flying body parts.

He says he wanted it to be as close to a documentary as possible, but of course it's nothing of the sort. War documentaries don't look like they were shot by Helmut Newton for a spread in Paris-Match. If In the Bedroom confuses a fastidious naturalism for realism, Black Hawk Down does the same with its brand of postmodern expressionism, which bathes every frame with the glamorous grunge, kinky colors and caffeinated clarity of a perfume ad.

Scott is a) British and b) a renowned director of television commercials, which together I think help explain this pretentious film's other most salient quality: its assumption that "art" has everything to do with photography and nothing with moral vision. Could an American director have so zealously and unperturbedly mounted a film that's basically two hours of white guys machine-gunning hundreds upon hundreds of black men? I would hope not. The last time we saw racial insensitivity akin to this was with Mississippi Burning, in which the civil-rights battles of the 1960s were imagined minus any major black characters; that film was made by Alan Parker, another British commercials director. EndBlock

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