Director Todd Field's almost-masterpiece of a debut, "In the Bedroom," gets under way with a short lesson in the harsh realities of lobster fishing. When more than two of the animals are caught in the same trap, we're told, one is doomed to suffer. There isn't enough room for all three to coexist peacefully.
Field's story is set in coastal Maine, where humans, too, can find themselves ensnared in traps of passion and loss. In the former situation are young Frank Fowler (Nick Stahl) and his lover, Natalie (Marisa Tomei), an older, divorced mother of two small children. Their unconventional courtship poses a dilemma for Frank's parents, Matt (Tom Wilkinson) and Ruth (Sissy Spacek), who hold divergent opinions of the affair. Matt takes an indulgent tack, while Ruth is more vocal in her judgment that the boy could do better. The "third lobster" intruding on both of these relationships is Natalie's violent ex-husband, Richard (William Mapother), whose hunger to reingratiate himself in her life at any cost has tragic consequences for the Fowler clan.
Though the horrors that ensue in Field's tale (co-written with Robert Festinger and inspired by Killings, a short story by the late Andre Dubus) seem suitable for a made-for-TV tear-jerker, the patience and care he devotes to the material make In the Bedroom an unsurpassed exercise in domestic-drama verisimilitude. He gives Spacek and Wilkinson time to explore every facet of their characters' pain, and they repay him with the two finest leading performances of the movie year 2001. Ruth and Matt are entirely realized as complex but decent people devastated by extraordinary circumstances. Yet they're even fascinating at their most ordinary. Ruth is a music teacher, and the handful of scenes she shares with her students shows Spacek nailing the professional mien of the successful educator: the lightly exaggerated benevolence that, no matter how heartfelt, is a performance all its own. (Not as much can be said of Tomei, whose typically overwrought portrayal is out of step with the fine work being done around her. Thankfully, she isn't onscreen enough to cast a pall over Wilkinson's and Spacek's tours de force.)
Field, an actor who appeared in Victor Nuñez's "Ruby in Paradise" and Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut," proves attentive to the details that separate a good director from a great one. (We get a brief glimpse of a student-driver vehicle whose license plate reads "PRAY4US.") As a writer, though, he makes the sad mistake of compromising himself at the eleventh hour. After maintaining a lived-in authenticity almost all the way through, he ultimately panders to the victims'-rights crowd with melodramatics that contradict the believability he has so effectively established. Field may have thought that his story -- and his audience -- demanded closure, but his film loses its mantle as an all-time classic the minute he forces his characters to take up arms against their troubles instead of enduring them with dignity.