Field Before 'TÁR'
After a 16-year absence, Todd Field returned with a triumphant third film. Did his first two films justify the pre-release excitement?
The air of anticipation around TÁR, director Todd Field’s first film in 16 years, struck me as a little odd—at least until I saw the film and realized that the excitement was retroactively justified. Was it an absence-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder situation, where the wait between projects was so protracted and so full of whispers about ambitious ideas that never came to pass—an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s seemingly unadaptable Blood Meridian and a Showtime version of Jonathan Franzen’s Purity among them—that his reputation grew one trade article at a time?
Perhaps there was some psychic connection people were making between Field and the famously poky Stanley Kubrick, who cast him as Nick Nightingale in Eyes Wide Shut, which Kubrick made after a 12-year hiatus and several stalled projects of his own. Or could it simply be that Field’s previous work, 2001’s In the Bedroom and 2006’s Little Children, were just that good? (This seems like the least-likely scenario of the three, Occam’s Razor be damned.)
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Back in 2001, I’d have been one of those Field proselytizers. During the one and only Sundance Film Festival I ever attended, I had a front-row seat at the premiere of In the Bedroom, which was unveiled at the festival’s most prestigious venue—a high-school auditorium. Experience had taught me never to get excited about first-time features directed by actors, which are mainstays at festivals like Sundance and Tribeca, mostly characterized by conspicuous ensemble casts and near-total absence of creative vision.
In the Bedroom dispelled those expectations immediately with its sober and evocative treatment of an aging couple whose marriage falls apart after losing their only son to violence. I came away thinking that I’d just seen the debut of a major new director—and said as much in my festival report—and that the film would be warmly received, provided that Harvey Weinstein didn’t touch a frame of it.
Down from the mountain, however, I started to distrust my own reaction to In the Bedroom, because I’d witnessed so many occasions when my colleagues overpraised Sundance sensations, perhaps punchy from the thin air. When Field finally stepped forward with a follow-up five year later—a long time, we thought naively—with Little Children, an adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s bestseller about suburban malaise, it struck me as a high-toned American Beauty, pocked with grace notes and plenty of fine performances, but disappointingly reductive and heavy-handed in the same way. Perhaps Field was just a middlebrow director with literary aspirations, and what we were really craving for after 16 years was a return to serious dramas of scale, which had since become an endangered species in American cinema.
But I hadn’t seen either In the Bedroom or Little Children since the year they came out. Was I right the first time about Field? And what even is a Todd Field film, now that we have a sample size large enough to consider?
One thing’s for certain: Field is a reader. That long list of abandoned projects is virtually all adaptations, for one, as is In the Bedroom, which is expanded from a 1977 Andre Debus short story called “Killings.” From the beginning of the film, Field displays a writerly feel for how much illustrative elements of landscape, local culture, and domestic bric-a-brac can tell us about the characters and their world before anybody opens their mouths.
The opening shots are an idyllic fantasy of lovers cavorting in a windswept field—its Malick-like qualities reinforced by the line, “I can feel my life, you know?”—but that’s merely a prelude for the tragedy to come. As is a subsequent moment of a re-aired Red Sox broadcast playing in a truck in Camden, Maine, which seems like an inconsequential detail until it returns later at a more sinister moment. Everything that seems invigorating or comforting about this beautiful New England enclave will eventually turn to ash.
Contentment isn’t an illusion in Field’s world, exactly, but In the Bedroom subtly delineates all the fragile contingencies that hold its characters together—and the internal and external forces that inevitably tear them apart. The action in Debus’ story comprises only the final third here, and the rest is filled in by Field and co-writer Robert Festinger, who dive in the circumstances that lead a father to seek revenge for his son’s death. The father is Matt Fowler (Tom Wilkinson), a long-serving family physician in the area, and his son is Frank (Nick Stahl), a promising architecture student who’s gotten himself involved with Natalie (Marisa Tomei), an older single mother with two young children. Matt and his wife Ruth (Sissy Spacek) worry that Frank’s obvious affection for Natalie will hijack his future—for her part, Natalie does too—but the danger to Frank turns out to be much more literal.
After Natalie’s volatile ex-husband Richard (William Mapother) shows up uninvited to his son’s birthday party, thrown at the Fowlers’ home, Field takes his time building up to the inevitable moment when Richard takes Frank’s life. But as that threat hangs over the first act, Field carefully establishes the closeness of this community and the subtle divisions between Matt and Ruth, whose marriage is the true center of In the Bedroom. Their investment in their son’s success isn’t surprising—he is the sole product and project of their marriage—but they’re at odds about how (and if) to steer him away from Natalie and, we later learn, about the basic shape their lives have taken together. Without Nick, who are they to each other? How much has their marriage been leveraged on him alone?
In the Bedroom unfolds in a three-act structure so pristinely proportioned you could serve it at a Michelin-starred restaurant. Frank’s murder leads into the fallout in the Fowlers’ marriage, which leads into the dark reckoning of Debus story. The Fowlers are united in their frustration over weaknesses in the murder case: Between discrepancies in Natalie’s testimony and her ex-husband’s family connection to the local cannery, their son’s killer gets released on bail and the charges against him will likely be reduced to manslaughter. But in the second act, that injustice is mostly just an extra splash of kerosene to the flames already smoldering in Matt and Ruth’s marriage, which suffers a near-total breakdown of communication.
Field has the patience to allow these resentments to manifest themselves as a series of behavior shifts: Matt spends less time at home and drinks too much while Ruth is swamped by grief and regards him with passive-aggression when indifference alone won’t do. In the Bedroom builds up to an explosive scene between them that becomes the dramatic centerpiece of the film, with Wilkinson and Spacek paying off all the quiet work they’ve done on these characters. With their only son now dead, Ruth reminds Matt that she wants another child but sacrificed that desire so he could start his practice. But she hammers him much harder on the way he not only indulged Nick’s relationship to Natalie, but lived vicariously through him, regarding her as “a fantasy piece of ass.”
Field breaks up the scene with a masterstroke of a pause, when the doorbell rings abruptly and a girl offers a box of fundraising candy bars, of which Matt dutifully buys several. The absurdity of the moment alters the tenor of their conversation in a way that feels equally true to the sturdiness of their partnership as the previous minutes were a rupture. Everything Ruth said about Matt was true—we witness him ogling Natalie at a cookout and dashing out during lunch hour to join Nick on the docks—but it was a necessary exorcism of the bad feelings between them. The fact that it leads to revenge rather than peaceful reconciliation is the film’s final twist.
That last section is an agony that Field draws out beautifully—a feature that unites all three of his films, which all run well north of 120 minutes. His abduction of Nick’s killer is a sloooooooow lead-up to an abrupt conclusion: Matt wants him dead and shoots him at the first opportunity, well before he and his collaborator intended. Along the way, though, Field focuses on each small step in the process and places emphasis where needed, like when Matt spots a picture of a blissful Natalie and her ex-husband on the wall, which seems to be the point of no return.
In the Bedroom has the courage to leave us in a disquietly place in the Fowlers’ marriage, where Ruth is revealed to be fully aware of her husband’s plan and where Matt still burns with feeling over his son’s girlfriend. Normalcy seems to arrive in a denouement where Ruth calls up to Matt, asking if he wants coffee. But where Field leaves the relationship, it stands to be a bitter cup.
Just as Field opened In the Bedroom with images and moments that would be cast in a darker light later, he begins Little Children, his adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s novel, with a living room lined with ticking clocks and little glass tchotchkes. We learn later that the house belongs to May McGorvey (Phyllis Somerville) and her middle-aged son Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley), who has recently been released on the charge of exposing himself to minors. The community hysteria over his presence in the neighborhood is the backdrop for a more familiar drama about infidelity and the domestic suffocation in the ‘burbs. These two pieces of the film don’t intersect, but are instead set on a collision course that doesn’t link them as satisfyingly as Field intends.
Once again, Field’s literary roots are exposed, most conspicuously through a device that mimics a third-person omniscient narrator, reading passages directly from Perrotta’s book. Our first glimpse of Sarah (Kate Winslet), a hothouse flower wilting in a loveless marriage and ambivalent motherhood, is accompanied by this description: “Smiling politely to mask a familiar feeling of desperation, Sarah reminded herself to think like an anthropologist. She was a researcher studying the behavior of typical suburban women. She was not a typical suburban woman herself.”
The species she’s observing are a trio of soulless gossips at the neighborhood park, who contentedly manage their kids while keeping an eye out for a handsome Mr. Mom type they call The Prom King. His actual name is Brad (Patrick Wilson), a would-be lawyer who can’t pass the bar and currently watches his son while his controlling wife, Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), wears the pants in the family.
Little Children doesn’t advance far beyond the blanket contempt Sarah has for the other mothers or her husband, whom she catches masturbating while sniffing the mail-ordered underwear of a web MILF named “Slutty Kay.” Kathy isn’t treated much more generously, either, as she sends him off to the library at night like an errant schoolboy, monitors his magazine subscriptions, and questions whether he really needs a cell phone. Sarah and Brad’s mutual feeling of isolation from these monsters—along with, yes, an attraction to each other—pushes them into a friendship and an affair that brightens their weekday routine considerably. Even their kids get along great.
Perrotta has handled the square-peg/round-hole dynamic of misfits in suburbia more gracefully in the past—his terrific debut novel, 1997’s The Wishbones, is particularly well-observed and light on its feet—but Little Children has a capital-I Importance to it that Field isn’t inclined to tamp down. To circle back to that first quote, the film doesn’t work as anthropology at all, because its mode is more judgmental than observant. But it does handle Sarah and Brad’s fling with an earthy explicitness that’s genuinely sexy, somewhere between plane-going-down urgency and the unposed friction of parents having sex. There’s a weird wrinkle where Sarah feels insecure and dowdy next to Brad’s more glamorous wife—we can see quite plainly that she’s Kate Winslet—but the way they drift into this affair, which can only lead to disaster, is utterly persuasive.
Better still is Ronnie’s end of the story, because it’s here where Field and Perrotta stick their necks out the farthest. Given that the villains of this community, led by a disgraced ex-cop (the always-excellent Noah Emmerich) who heads up the Committee of Concerned Parents, are trying to chase the McGorveys out of their house, it would have been easy to make Ronnie a reformed or misunderstood victim. (A scene where he tries to snorkel in the public pool and the parents beckon all of their children out of the water is a low moment in the film.) But Ronnie is a legitimately compulsive pedophile, despite his mother’s efforts to press him into normalcy. When he agrees to go on a date just to please her—with poor Jane Adams, who already suffered a bad dinner at the beginning of Todd Solondz’s Happiness—the evening ends with him requesting she pull over across from a school playground, and gets much more disturbing from there.
The title Little Children has multiple meanings, from the school-age tykes who are supervised by these wayward grown-ups to Ronnie himself, who cannot survive without his elderly mother around. But the film feels freighted by its own significance, which isn’t often relieved by the humor that leavens Perrotta’s best work. The one inspired exception is Field’s decision to deploy his deep-toned narrator for an NFL Films-style rundown of Brad’s triumph in a touch football night league, where he leads a team of cops to gridiron glory. Yet Field’s fundamental seriousness is more often a liability, struggling to validate what ultimately reads as the cartoon suburbia we’ve seen in far too many movies.
Perhaps the anticipation for TÁR was the faith that the robustness of Field’s filmmaking style, which is never in question in Little Children, would again find material that was better suited to it. Maybe it’s best for Field to make original work than to try to mold his sensibility around another writer—TÁR, after all, is entirely his own conceit and the first two-thirds of In the Bedroom, which were beyond the scope of Dubus’ short story, are arguably the strongest sections of the film. But the seeds of this recent triumph are present in both In the Bedroom and Little Children, which are defined by bold choices, whether they work or not. After 16 years, that’s something to anticipate.
A short note from Keith: Hello. I’m dealing with a parent-related health issue right now so my ability to contribute is temporarily limited. (Hence no piece yesterday.) I’ll be back soon, hopefully with a review tomorrow and more next week.
I was looking forward to Tar before this essay... Now, more than ever. Thank you, Scott!
It's been so long since I've seen In the Bedroom, and to be frank, I don't think this is a movie I ever want to see again. Not because it wasn't good or anything, but because it was such a sad, sad movie. So reading the play-by-play here is more than enough for me. 🙂
There are few voiceovers that I like in a movie. One of the major exceptions is another Tom Perrotta book/movie, Election. I really dug the audiobook-like narration in Little Children. I'm not sure if another movie has utilized this device...? What I think I like most about it was how economically it was used, just enough to better illuminate the characters without going overboard.
"[E]at my head...I'm serious. Coat me with ranch, chase me with cheese if you must, I don't care. It's the only way...I'm saving his life."
-Todd Field, source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PHfh73AJxAI