The worldview espoused in Todd Field movies troubles me. It may not be fair to evaluate his filmmaking on these terms, I know. Should film reviewers shelve their personal erspective when writing about a movie? Is it appropriate to only praise or discuss or analyze the technical/practical aspect of the filmmaking and simply "agree to disagree" on the thematic content?
Field absolutely demonstrates some ability here with a camera and he's good with actors. By no means do I think he's a bad director. (In person, though, kind of a tool...)
He's made two films now - In the Bedroom and Little Children - and based solely on them, I believe we share profoundly opposed ideologies. As a result, I'm not sure I'll be able to fairly evaluate the movies as movies. So keep that in mind as you read. Oh, also, I'll refrain from "giving away" the ending of Little Children, but I fully reserve the right to give away the ending of In the Bedroom. If you cared, you'd have seen it already.
Both of Field's films take on the same basic question: Does it make any sense for human beings to deny ourselves?
In the Bedroom opens with an impetuous May-December romance which is brutally interrupted by a poorly-planned murder and it closes with an aging couple making a decision to violate the law in the name of justice. These characters are AWARE from the beginning that they are breaking the rules, but they do so anyway because they can not deny themselves pleasure or satisfaction.
The mismatched couple could listen to reason, but they don't want to. Likewise, the angry ex-husband could pick up the shattered pieces of his life and move on, but he never does. Finally, the mourning couple could accept their son's death and process their anger in a healthy fashion, but it proves too difficult. So instead of bottling up their dangerous, buried desires, they're forced to act.
My problems with the film were numerous. I didn't really find its conclusion realistic and I didn't care for its reliance on silly old patriarchial stereotypes.Real quick...The patriarchy thing, cause I know that's a strong charge to just throw out there. Sissy Spacek's character is lame. She's got the sinister Lady MacBeth thing going on, taunting his husband to act out violently without being willing to do any dirty work herself. PLUS, if you think about her actual on-screen action, it's all this lame '50s housewife imagery. Smashing plates, slapping young women in the face...It's like an episode of "The Donna Reed Show" gone horribly, horribly wrong. Why couldn't her character actually ever DO anything strong or determined? Why must she be so shrill?
I'm reminded of Chan-Wook Park's Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. Here, the women are still encouraging their men to commit savage acts of revenge, but they at least they get to take part. It's not such a Victorian send-out-the-menfolk-to-exterminate-the-brutes kind of deal.
But I also objected to what Ricky Roma might call Field's "middle-class morality." Namely, it's okay for a well-off suburban white couple to kill a man, if they feel like he really really deserves it. Would the film play the same for audiences if it was a young Latin couple? Or a poor white trash couple? Or just a single father? And what if the guy didn't kill their son, but only paralyzed him? Or what if he hit his intended target and killed their son's girlfriend? I mean, once you agree that vigilante revenge killing is acceptable...
Anyway, on to Little Children, which in its own way is even more disagreeable than In the Bedroom. The film centers around two crumbling marriages and a mother-son relationship in a wealthy suburban enclave. (I won't go into this subject any more, but it's possibly the whitest movie of the modern American era.)
Sarah Pierce (Oscar-nominated Kate Winslet) has grown so bored and frustrated with the life of a doting mother and housewife, she walks around with a permanent look of weary disdain and can barely manage to speak to her daughter without contempt. At the playground one afternoon, she meets the hunky father whom the other catty moms have dubbed "The Prom King." He's Brad (Patrick Wilson), a law student who can't pass the bar exam who spends his days caring for his young son while his successful wife Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) makes documentary films.
Sparks fly immediately between Sarah and Brad, so as responsible married people, they try to avoid one another for a while. But it becomes clear soon enough that there's more here than a passing, shared attraction. As soon as the smallest speed bumps in their marriages arise, it's an excuse to begin a passionate love affair.
This story of forbidden love mirrors another, somewhat more perverse narrative about paroled sex offender Ronnie McGorvey (Oscar-nominated Jackie Earle Haley). It's mentioned in passing that McGorvey did time for "indecent exposure," but he's pretty much an all-around creepy weirdo. In the film's best sequence, he goes on a very sweet date with a mentally ill woman, played perfectly by Jane Adams, before degrading her and making a fool of himself. He could be a normal guy with a normal life, but because he can't control his taboo sexual urges, he's a freak living with his mother (Phyllis Somerville) and being harrassed by an unstable ex-cop (
Unless they yield to their compulsions, Brad and Sarah and Ronnie cannot find peace. But once they have actually indulged, slept with the stranger or masturbated in public, their initial feelings of desperation don't subside. Instead, these inescapable, negative obsessions are enhanced by newfound feelings of guilt and shame.
These are not easy dilemmas, and the actors do a terrific job at physically embodying anxious tension, sexual frustration and panic. Kate Winslet doesn't even look very much like her old self as Sarah. Little Children is one of those movies that would never get nominated for Costume Design, because its style is so contemporary and subtle, but the art department nails every aspect of Sarah's look exactly right. (On the subject of award season, I would have thought Somerville as Ronnie's mother was the obvious choice for a supporting performance. She only has a few big scenes, but she's stellar, and we all know how Oscar loves a rascally, charming old lady.)
Adapating Tom Perrotta's novel, Field's starting with some fertile, interesting material. (They wrote the script together). And he's working with a very strong cast all around, save
But regrettably, the film still falls kind of flat. It's not a bad film by any stretch. I rather enjoyed watching it, actually. But Field on some level seems to lack confidence in his own ability. For a guy whose movies can come off as pretentious, it's strange to likewise feel that he's holding back and selling himself short. But here we are.
Perhaps the worst decision anyone made with regards to Little Children was in Field's and Perrotta's inclusion of a voice-over narration, with actor Will Lyman intrusively reading to the audience key passages from the book. (I can understand why a novelist might want to keep some of his own voice in the story, as it's such a big part of any book. But that's just not how film works.) Not once, not one single time, does the narrator prove himself useful. Lyman has a smokey, almost ominous tone as he reads Perrotta's words, so it somewhat helps to set a tone early on, I guess, but all he's doing is telling us exactly what's happening in a scene while it's happening. Like we don't get it.
Todd, that's what actors are for. We can see them experience these situations in dazzling Technicolor. Why would we want Will Lyman putting it into his own words for our benefit? Perhaps no scene boasts less compelling narration than the awkward dinner party, when Brad and Kathy invite Sarah and her lame ad exec husband Richard (Gregg Edelman) over for dinner. (Kathy suggests the meal on the pretense of their children's friendship, but she's obviously trying to figure out if Brad and Sarah are having sex.)
Kathy makes a sudden revelation and Connelly does a beautiful job of selling the moment. She doesn't say a word, but her eyes well up and she tenses and we in the audience, because we are human beings with fully functioning eyes and brains, can tell that she has figured something out that's upsetting to her. But Lyman's got to tell us all about it anyway. "All of the sudden, Kathy knew, and she felt..."
Bogus. Totally bogus. Repetitive, silly, completely uncinematic. It just pulls you right out of the moment and reminds you that you're watching a movie that would probably work better as a novel.
Field needs to trust his actors and his camera to tell the story. Simple as that.
I likewise say his film lacks confidence because his last act is a complete cop-out. Characters experience sudden changes of heart that not only stretch the limits of believability, but directly violate the logical sense of the film's first half. And it's not only that I doubt the likelihood of the outcome to Brad and Sarah's infidelity. It's that I think it's an ugly, mean-spirited and almost inhuman way to end the movie.
Without blowing too much, Field wants us to accept what his entire movie seems to argue against. For 120 minutes, he shows us characters struggling with negative urges who eventually lose the fight. It is inevitable, Little Children posits, that we will slowly give in to our base desires. Such is the life of a human being. Then his ending expects us to believe that the deserving characters can turn their urges on and off like a switch, can one night simply decide to be nice people and have their appetites permanently quenched. I call bullshit.
It's not that the movie has to have a bleak ending necessarily, although an all-around bleak movie like Little Children kind of paints itself into that corner. But Field begins the movie with a problem he has no interest in solving, doesn't solve anything and then pretends he has made a film with a happy ending. Too bad he hasn't. At least, I wasn't happy.