Thursday, June 11, 2009

Effective Narrative Strategies of In the Bedroom

For the last two years In the Bedroom has been one of my favorite movies; the longest a film has remained in this slot.  This does mean that I think it's the greatest or even one of the greatest films of all time; strangely, such a list is completely different from my favorites list.

The difference between the greatest films and my favorite films lies in latter’s ability to be watched again and again, rarely ceasing in its initial seduction and constantly revealing things unnoticed from the previous viewing.  More profoundly, I think that a favorite movie differs in its ability to elicit a much deeper connection with the viewer.  While Citizen Kane has the most revolutionary and exciting of cinematic techniques, I do not relate to either the story of Charles Kane or any of the other characters; likewise, although the characters are extremely well developed and psychologically realistic, there are hardly any moments in the narrative that cause me to feel a connection.  

In the Bedroom, however, revolves around a family that is extremely similar to my own.  The dad is an extremely intelligent and caring person, while the mother is a bit overbearing and quick to judge.  Frank, on the other hand, is a kid struggling between continuing on with a relatively successful lifestyle and abandoning it for the passionate love he feels for an older woman.  Maybe Frank’s struggle between love and his parent's expectations were similar to a choice I once struggled to make.  Maybe because the Fowler's are so similar to my own family, I connect that much more with the tragic story.  Regardless, there are countless movies which could fit the same dramatic category and pose similar questions, and it is for that reason that In the Bedroom’s narrative style and cinematic mood far exceed anything I have yet to see. 

The following is a list of effective narrative strategies Robert Festinger implemented within the screenplay.  As I have said countless times, the key to a great movie is its ability to compress the narrative, letting the audience sort out the details at a later time.

As a quick summary, Matt and Ruth Fowler’s son Frank is on the verge of leaving for college with a degree in architecture, continuing on with the Ivy League legacy both of his parents had accomplished.  Currently though, he has fallen in love with Natalie Strout who has two kids and a husband, Richard Strout, who is violently hesitant to let his gorgeous wife leave him for a younger guy.  Eventually this erupts into Richard murdering Frank, and due to the lack of witnesses, is only charged with manslaughter.  The rest of the movie then deals with Matt and Ruth struggling with the lack of justice along with the deterioration of their relationship.

Thus, here are the reasons why I think the narrative of In the Bedroom is absolutely perfect.

  1. I think the most obvious question upon the film’s conclusion is how did Frank and Natalie meet?  It took me until the third viewing to finally observe how ingeniously and subtlety this was explained in the movie.  But here are the explanations I have derived thus far:

    1. The opening credits are shot in the Strout Fish Factory.  Throughout the film, this factory will be shown in the background in order to emphasize it’s importance: for instance, when Frank, Matt and Jason are in the boat, when Matt is driving, and, most particularly, when Matt is eating with his friend Willis and the Strout Fish truck pulls into the window.  Because of this, we now understand how big this business truly is and how much political sway they must possess.
    2. At the BBQ Frank’s friend says, “So Mrs. Strout mentioned you again, said you were the best can packer she ever had.  Said you looked real cute in that hairnet.”  Cleary, Mrs. Strout is Richard’s mother.  This would then explain how Natalie and Frank initially met.
    3. In bed the night after the BBQ, Matt - in response to his wife’s question about Natalie’s intentions - says “She probably loves him, girls always have.”  This then would explain why Natalie had fallen in love with Frank in the first place.  This also explains the skepticism Ruth maintains throughout the movie; namely, why is Natalie so infatuated with her child?
    4. After the court hearing, when it is learned that Strout will likely be charged with manslaughter rather than homicide, Matt and Ruth’s lawyer mentions how the Strout’s family “…was prepared to put up a substantial amount of property as bail, that, and along with his ties to the community made it very hard to convince the judge that there was a serious risk of flight.”  This speaks volumes for why Richard is the way he is; the rich, spoiled kid who finally got screwed over and thought he was above the law.  It also further emphasizes the wealth of Strout Fish, which would equally explain why beautiful Natalie would ever be with goofy-looking Richard - money.

  1. When Richard randomly arrives at the BBQ, it is an amazingly awkward and extremely revealing moment of Richard’s character.  Although I cannot remember a specific moment myself, I’m sure many people can recall situations where a person who was either uninvited or unwelcome shows up to a party.  Immediately, they will find a NEUTRAL person to talk in order to avoid the awkwardness.  In this case, Richard goes to his son, Duncan, in order to take him fishing for his birthday; two hours before the agreed time.  After, Duncan calls his brother a “poo poo head” to which Jason hits him.  Richard yells at Jason, telling him to not hit his brother, however, he does not yell at Duncan for name-calling nor initiating the fight.

  1. I had never watched a preview for this movie prior to seeing it, so when Frank was shot I was extremely shocked; it was a great strategy to first have us immersed in a story of passionate love and existential crisis’s - allowing the audience to observe the interactions between Frank and his family – and then, upon him being killed, transition into a story regarding psychological struggle, the search for justice and hidden motives.  (Kind of like Psycho).

  1. When Matt and Willis meet in the basement, Willis makes the suggestion of Matt moving away.  They never discuss or even hint at the idea of killing Richard, and yet it is clear that this was when they developed the plan.

  1. When Matt takes Richard to his townhouse there are numerous pictures that his children drew lining the staircase walls.  Further, in the last scene, after killing Richard, Matt says the most interesting and powerful line of the movie; “There was a picture of him and Natalie on the wall…the way she was smiling.” This begs the question: Was Natalie actually in love with Frank, or was it only to get back at Richard?  As indicated in the scene when Natalie comes home with Richard waiting for her in the kitchen, we learn he had cheated on her.  He explains that he wants to move back home, defending himself by saying, “I know what you’re going to say, it’s different now.”  Later Natalie says, “As far as fucking goes, who was it answering the phone the other morning?” exhibiting a certain degree of jealousy.  Thus, did Richard really deserve to die?  What if when Matt mentions to Jason about the problem of getting two lobsters "in the bedroom" he is actually using the cage as a metaphor for love?  In other words, if two guys get “trapped” into loving the same beautiful, manipulative woman is it really either of their faults for fighting?  If this is true, then Ruth was actually justified for condemning Frank and Natalie’s relationship, along with slapping her regardless of any apology.  Also, when Ruth accuses Matt of living vicariously through Frank and his “piece of ass,” she is revealing what she thinks of Natalie; the woman Frank is thinking about dropping out of school for is not divorced yet, and she's heard many questionable stories about her escapades throughout the community.  
So that's what a perfect movie is; a story which changes and expands through each viewing.  I should emphasize that most of these observations weren't made until the third or fourth viewing.  Specifically, question five was something I never even considered until I watched the movie two days ago.  It makes me wonder of all the other movies I've seen only once and yet are probably so much deeper...