To Live (China, 1994)

China is kind of a big deal right now. But for a country that plays such a pivotal role in the world, how much do you know about the four thousand eventful years of history behind it? If you’re like me, the answer is… well, not much. My classes in school never really went there, focusing on the supposedly more relevant history of Europe and the U.S.A. Even the past several decades—when the world has been interconnected enough that what happened in East Asia was of at least some consequence to us in the West—are so dauntingly complex that it’s hard for a layperson to know where to start. Fortunately, as with any foreign culture, in addition to the many informative books and articles out there, a great deal can be learned from its cinema, even if we’re only able to explore it at a surface level—the greatest hits and the biggest names. In China, one of those names is the director Zhang Yimou, whose prolific career has included some of the Chinese movies best known to Western audiences. If you ever saw Hero (2002), with Jet Li as a nameless kung fu master recounting his exploits to (and possibly trying to assassinate!) the emperor, or House of Flying Daggers (2004), a gorgeous martial-arts romance that doesn’t feature quite as many flying daggers as one might hope—in both cases, that was Zhang behind the camera.[i] Amid such a high-octane body of work, it’s all too easy to overlook To Live, his deeply affecting 1994 drama that brings recent Chinese history to life with an eloquence and emotional clarity that most historical epics can only gesture towards.

At first glance, it might seem strange to call To Live[ii] an epic at all. It focuses on a family of no historical significance and takes place almost entirely in a single unnamed town in the north of China, far from the major cities where all the big, society-shaping decisions are being made. There’s very little historical exposition, yet as a Westerner,[iii] you come away from this movie feeling like you’ve learned a great deal about China in the middle of the twentieth century. How does Zhang do it? The solution is deceptively simple: he depicts the grand historical events through the eyes of a married couple, Fugui and Jiazhen, whose modest aspirations anybody, Chinese or otherwise, can relate to. The idea isn’t original to Zhang; storytellers have been using ordinary people as windows into history for centuries. But Zhang has assets that elevate that familiar device into something truly moving: a skillful and heartfelt adaptation of powerful source material; a pair of masterful lead performances; and his own great talent for gorgeously expressive visual storytelling.

The result is a movie that’s thoroughly captivating, even as it hits the standard emotional notes (both high and low) of the family-across-decades subgenre. Marital strife and reconciliation, financial catastrophe, war, political upheaval, children growing up and having children themselves, tragic loss, strained friendship—it’s all there, and while none of these plot developments are exactly original, Zhang and screenwriter Lu Wei avoid many of the narrative pitfalls that historical epics commonly run into. They take care to ensure that events arise organically, with plausible origins in the historical context and in the personalities of the characters, so that despite the prodigious catalogue of woe that befalls Fugui and Jiazhen, it doesn’t feel like the trials and tribulations are being piled on purely for tear-jerking purposes.[iv]

It’s not just about logical cohesion, though; more often than not, these familiar elements are subtly tweaked, redirected, or inverted in a way that makes them feel fresh. Sometimes it’s clear enough to be spelled out in the dialogue: Fugui gambles his family into financial ruin, but it ends up saving their lives a decade later, when the Communists take over and any link to the old aristocracy becomes a potentially lethal liability. Mostly, however, the adjustments are more finely drawn. Long’er, the man who conspires to take Fugui’s fortune, is hardly a monster, just a suave aristocrat with a greedy streak running through an otherwise decent personality; he does all he can to ease Fugui’s transition into his new life of poverty, even offering to take care of his aging mother for a time. In the manner of a straightforward antagonist, he coldly denies Fugui’s request for a small loan, but then proceeds to give him something much more valuable: the beautiful set of hand-crafted shadow puppets that allow Fugui to earn a living, and end up saving his life on multiple occasions. Indeed, the puppets are set up to be another common element in the historical epic: the heirloom (or some other emotionally significant object) that accompanies the protagonists across the decades—except here, the puppets don’t make it all the way through, falling victim to the paranoia of the Cultural Revolution. When Fugui and his friend Chunsheng get swept up in the civil war, the grizzled, jaded veteran they meet doesn’t advantage of their fear and naiveté, but takes them under his wing and provides life-saving advice. The town’s top Communist official, Mr. Niu, is a true believer who eagerly carries out cold-hearted policies, but he’s also a friendly, attentive leader with a genuine desire to improve the lives of his people. When Fugui brings his son Youqing to work after days without sleep, tragedy results not from a steel-smelting mishap, but from a much more mundane, preventable, and even darkly ironic accident. A hastily arranged marriage for the couple’s shy, mute daughter Fengxia feels similarly ominous, until her husband turns out to be a thoroughly decent man who falls in love with her and fits seamlessly into the family.

And the list could go on; all throughout the movie, Zhang deftly subverts our expectations in this way. The adjustments are minor, but the effect is exponential. The story is more interesting, but it also feels more accurate, more attuned to the twists and turns of real life, which so rarely align with tired plot points.

Moreover, everything is depicted in Zhang’s typically elegant visual style, expertly rendered here by cinematographer Lü Yue. To Live is actually quite visually restrained by Zhang’s standards; in other movies both before and after, he tends to go all-out on the vivid colors and stylized compositions, as if testing the limits of overused critical terms like ‘sumptuous’ and ‘visual splendor’.[v] Still, his restraint here dovetails neatly with the modest scale of the story, and the movie is still far from visually dull. Zhang is one of those gifted artists who will take care to compose an arresting image even for unimportant, throwaway-type moments: a man walking away down a deserted street, the beautifully intricate work of the shadow puppet troupe, or a pauper selling trinkets on the street, huddled against the winter cold. Such visual generosity is always welcome, and it’s crucial in a historical fiction film like this, which aims to immerse us as much in the setting and the time period as in the plot.

Zhang’s visual instincts are even more impressive in important moments; he has a knack for finding images that perfectly illuminate massive historical forces on an individual level. At the beginning, he draws our attention to the ledger full of Fugui’s debts, a charming relic of an earlier era that, with blood-red thumbprints along the bottom in lieu of signatures, is also slightly ominous, portending not only Fugui’s bankruptcy, but the downfall of the whole social order that he represents. Zhang signals the arrival of the Communist Revolution with a bayonet punching through the screen used in Fugui’s puppet shows—a simple, almost comical image that evokes the dangerous cocktail of violence, excitement, and uncertainty that comes with civil war. A wide shot of Fugui and Chunsheng fleeing down a snowy hillside, quickly dwarfed by an endless wave of soldiers in pursuit, forcefully illustrates the helpless position of ordinary bystanders in the midst of such a conflict. Later on, when Zhang lingers on the aftermath of a festive night of steel production, the people sleeping around the forge look disconcertingly like corpses, suggesting that as jubilant as this community-wide project has been, it’s probably not going to end well. For me, one of the most powerful shots is a simple close-up of Fugui’s treasured puppets burning, succinctly showing how not even the most treasured and beautiful artifacts of the past are safe from the relentless modernizing forces of the Cultural Revolution. And finally, the human cost of that upheaval is made brutally clear in the image of an experienced doctor, weakened by imprisonment and starvation, passed out on the floor as a medical emergency unfolds behind him.

Another key factor in the movie’s success is Zhang’s excellent sense of pacing. Any movie that condenses three decades into just over two hours is going to feel rushed at times, but Zhang does a remarkably good job of making us feel the weight of all those passing years. He doesn’t succumb to the cliché of signaling a significant jump forward with a quick montage of nostalgia-tinged images, an approach that rarely (if ever) really works. He knows it can be done less obtrusively, through changes in clothing and hairstyles, the arrival and departure of minor characters, and especially the seasonal backdrop—the progress from spring and summer towards fall and winter is clear and persistent, appealing to our hardwired sense of time in annual chunks, but also irregular, so we intuit that this is happening over many different years. He’s also helped immeasurably by Zhao Jiping’s wistful theme music, which evokes old memories and the long-term passage of time even when the images don’t show it.

Zhang also makes the smart choice to divide the movie into three distinct sections, each covering one decade and quite narrowly focused. (The middle chapter, covering ‘The 1950s,’ unfolds over no more than a couple of weeks, and even the two more expansive ones linger on key moments rather than painting in broad brushstrokes.) Concentrating on these short but consequential time periods is another slight adjustment that adds a great deal to the movie, giving both the story and the characters room to breathe. It lets Zhang make use of a clever narrative device not available in most other circumstances: namely, creating tension simply by focusing on ordinary, mundane events. In a movie that spans many years, we know we’re seeing only the most important moments—the highlights, so to speak, of a much more detailed story—so when the movie lingers on things that seems trivial, we’re left in a muted but persistent state of anticipation, until something momentous finally does come to pass. To adapt and paraphrase another critic’s excellent description of this technique: The big community-steel-making sequence goes on forever, and you’re not quite sure why—until, suddenly, you are.[vi] We see it elsewhere as well, in the tense lead-up to Fuigui’s capture by the Communist forces, and when he and Jiazhen nervously make small talk while Fengxia is in labor. This willingness to delve into the details of everyday life is especially valuable for foreign viewers, serving to immerse us more fully in a fascinatingly unfamiliar world.

Most important of all, Zhang is free to give us a more complete portrait of his characters. Fugui and Jiazhen could easily have been one-dimensional victims, nobly suffering through one hardship after another. But by narrowing the movie’s focus, Zhang is able to expand its emotional range. It’s not just about fitting some welcome moments of levity into the proceedings; the lead performances, by Ge You as Fugui and Gong Li as Jiazhen, are much more nuanced than they would otherwise have been. We see them in crisis, but also in less serious moments, learn a bit about their quirks and, crucially, their flaws, so that we come to know them not just as pawns on a historical chessboard, but as human beings with recognizable personalities and many normal facets to their lives.

I often find it rather difficult to judge performances in Chinese, with its intonations and vocal rhythms so different from English, but Ge and Gong’s work here transcends such barriers. Even back in 1994, Ge was already a well-established star in China, known mostly (I was initially surprised to learn) for comedic roles. But his gangly frame and angular features turn out to be just as well suited to a serious role as an ordinary rural citizen: not movie-star handsome in a way that might stretch belief, but distinctive and expressive enough that our attention is always drawn to him. His low-key but undeniable screen presence is a perfect fit for the role; apart from skillfully navigating the emotional notes of the story, he projects a combination of decency, optimism, and practical-minded resilience that make Fugui easy to root for—with a near-constant undercurrent of mild bewilderment that makes him an ideal audience surrogate in this confusing, rapidly shifting milieu. It says a lot that although Fugui can be obstinate and misguided, the only time he’s truly unlikable is at the beginning, when he’s a spoiled son of the aristocracy. Ge manages to make that arrogant asshole and the modest family man he becomes recognizably the same person, someone who only grows more sympathetic even as he makes some significant mistakes. And his background in comedy actually informs another compelling facet of his performance: an understated way of bringing out (or sometimes simply gesturing towards) notes of irony and bitter humor even in deadly serious parts of the story.

Gong, meanwhile, is even more interesting. She, too, was already famous when To Live was made, fresh off a lead role in Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine (1993), which was well on its way to becoming one of the Chinese films most admired in the West. But like Ge, she manages to slip quite seamlessly into the movie’s setting. Her statuesque features are more recognizably those of a movie star (she has convincingly played empresses and nightclub singers, and was once voted the most beautiful woman in China) but with a plain haircut and workaday clothes, she doesn’t look out of place in a crowd of provincial townspeople. She’s undeniably gorgeous, but in a way that’s only a few steps removed from ordinary, if that makes any sense.

I think of Gong a bit like the Meryl Streep of Asia; the actresses are analogous in a number of ways, from the particular qualities of their screen presence (strikingly, almost imposingly elegant, yet still appealing and accessible) to their prodigious acting skills: unless a character is spectacularly ill-conceived, or the dialogue truly terrible, they’re going to be compelling to watch even if the movie isn’t. Neither of those obstacles exist in To Live; Gong works from a good script, playing a character who is almost entirely sympathetic. Fugui may technically be the movie’s protagonist, driving the plot and giving voice to the main ideas, but Jiazhen is its heart and aching conscience; the movie would not be nearly so poignant without the moral and emotional clarity that she provides. There’s no shortage of capital-A Acting in the role; Gong is called upon to tearfully walk out of a marriage, break down at the return of a presumed-dead husband, and weep for a dead child on three different occasions, and she does so with a raw, straightforward power that speaks to the universality of basic human emotions. Near the end, when Fengxia dies from complications in childbirth, Zhang zeroes in on a close-up of Jiazhen, crying and begging the nurses to save her last surviving child, and you don’t need to speak her language to feel the full force of Gong’s performance.

Such scenes are the emotional backbone of the movie, but as powerful as they are, Gong’s portrayal would still feel rather one-dimensional if she didn’t have more to do. Jiazhen doesn’t evolve in the same way as Fugui; her humility, good judgment, and heartbreaking willingness to take responsibility for misfortunes that aren’t her fault, are all fairly constant throughout the movie. It’s she who benefits the most from the story’s narrowed focus, and the corresponding attention to ostensibly mundane details. So along with the instances of high emotion, we see Jiazhen going about her normal life: washing clothes, fussing over a child’s school lunch, planning a practical joke with her son to cheer him up, meticulously poring over fabrics at a shop, and so on. For me, it’s these minor elements that really complete Jiazhen as a character; this woman of a distant culture and an earlier era, whose life experience is almost entirely alien to most of us, becomes much more familiar, perhaps even reminiscent of any number of unassuming, devoted mothers that we’ve encountered in our own lives—a connection which, in turn, makes her suffering all the more heart-rending. And while these fleeting moments may not demand her most impressive efforts, Gong clearly recognizes their importance; unmarried, without children, and only twenty-nine years old at the time, she approaches them with the same attention to detail as the big dramatic scenes, ensuring that she gets them right.

Meanwhile, just as impressive as the individual performances (and just as important, especially in this sort of movie) is the way that the two leads share the screen. Fugui and Jiazhen’s story is not a genre-typical one of impassioned romance amid turbulent history; we don’t see how they met, and the lone rough patch in their marriage is over and done with by the end of the first act. There are tragedies and disagreements afterwards, but never much doubt that the couple will stay together for good. Ge and Gong portray that deep commitment largely without overt displays of affection, focusing instead on the easy rapport and comfort in each other’s presence that characterize any solid marriage. Fugui and Jiazhen are portrayed less as passionate lovers than as a mostly well-functioning team, a romantic dynamic that’s much harder to convincingly capture onscreen. Ge and Gong even manage (aided, of course, by Zhang’s expert storytelling) to make these subtler bonds grow noticeably stronger as the movie goes on.

The same understated realism can be found in the movie’s approach to aging. No actor, filmed over a period of months, is really going to look like they’ve aged thirty years, and Zhang makes the wise decision not to use prosthetics and visual effects to try and sell it. (Such efforts aren’t always convincing even now, and certainly wouldn’t have been in China twenty-five years ago.) New costumes and altered hairstyles help,[vii] but Ge and Gong depict the aging process mostly through changes in the way they carry themselves. They don’t overdo it, shambling and hunched over like young people imitating the elderly. They understand the way most older people actually move: a bit slower and heavier, each motion taking just a little more effort, more deliberate but less controlled (Gong, in particular, nails the faint loosening of limbs and joints that age brings on)—in other words, doing their best to move with the same ease and grace that they did when they were younger. Fugui and Jiazhen are not ancient at the end, and don’t look terribly different at a glance, but the effects of thirty hard years are relatively convincing, precisely because they’re so subtly telegraphed. To illustrate the strength of their acting and of Zhang’s storytelling: pause the movie near the end and think back to the beginning, and you may be struck (as I was) by just how long ago it feels.

There are obvious reasons for such thoroughness: the movie feels more realistically lived-in, and the more we feel that we’ve actually been with the characters through many years, the greater our emotional investment in their well-being. But I think Zhang also intends for the inexorable passage of time to become an odd source of comfort; apart from the family’s instinctive love for each other, it’s about the only thing in the movie that’s completely predictable, straightforward, and unwavering. And this is the way that Zhang, working in an environment of strict artistic censorship, manages to engage with the fraught history and sensitive politics of the story he’s telling. For all its verisimilitude, To Live does not offer a totally accurate depiction of its time period—or rather, not a complete one, since it glosses over perhaps the most painful event in those three decades: the devastating famine that ravaged the country from around 1959-1961. It killed anywhere from 15 million (official government statistics, of course) to 45 million people (as some scholars contend), and was largely caused—or, at best, made markedly worse—by the sweeping policy changes of the Great Leap Forward. Zhang, in need of at least a decent relationship with the Party to have any career at all, had little choice but to leave it out if he ever wanted the movie to see the light of day.[viii]

And as strange as it sounds to say it, skipping over the famine makes some artistic sense as well. It was especially bad in rural areas like the town where Fugui and Jiazhen live, and would have been impossible to portray as anything other than an unmitigated horror show. Here in the West, that’s basically how we (encouraged by our own leaders, with their own agendas) think of Chinese Communism at that time: civil war, starvation, mob violence, and ruined lives, the whole nine yards of human misery. Millions of people did suffer those things, but Zhang was never going to be allowed to make a movie about them. He chose to focus on the lives that weren’t utterly destroyed by the Revolution, the untold millions of ordinary people just doing their best (as the movie’s title indicates) to live through turbulent, dangerous times. He knew that even without going fully polemical, he could still show the effects of such a massive social upheaval. So along with the undercurrents of sadness, there’s a mild but persistent atmosphere of uncertainty and instability, of things never quite working out the way we expect—or indeed, the way we feel they should. Zhang’s way of subtly modifying genre conventions is just one example. Isolated moments verge on the comical, like when Fugui, upon learning that his former home was burned down, feels the need to denounce it as “counterrevolutionary timber,” or when Mr. Niu deftly steers a wedding ceremony into a celebration of Chairman Mao. In a broader sense: three main tragedies befall the family, and while they are all in some way Fugui’s fault, the depth of the pain is inversely proportional to the extent of his poor judgment. His reckless hedonism plunges the family into bankruptcy, and it ends up saving all their lives. It seems a bit harsh when he insists that the exhausted Youqing go to school, but given the political climate, we can understand his apprehension about being seen as “politically backward.” And when Fengxia begins to hemorrhage, no one can help her because Fugui gave a starving man something to eat.

The sad fate of Youging and Fengxia also carries an implicit message that’s more straightforwardly political. It’s not always spelled out in the rhetoric, and no one in the movie says so outright, but revolutions are always, in some sense, about the children—it’s the only way that the true believers can get most ordinary citizens on board. Very few people will lay down their life for a political ideology. Pretty much everyone will lay down their life for their children. This is the revolution’s simple, often irresistible promise: a better life for future generations. In China (as everywhere else) it wasn’t nearly that simple, and what better way to illustrate the collision of high ideals with messy reality than that simple tragedy: the revolution is supposed to be for the children, and both of Fugui and Jiazhen’s children end up dead—from accidents whose connection to the revolution is indirect but unmistakable. It’s also no accident that the characters most committed to the revolution, Mr. Niu and Chunsheng, end up getting screwed by it in the most predictable fashion, denounced as capitalists by ambitious subordinates.

There’s a scene near the beginning that perfectly encapsulates the expansive, multi-faceted way that Zhang portrays this instability onscreen. Fugui and his companions, having slept through the retreat, wake up to find the military encampment deserted. The Communists are coming, and we’re imploring Fugui and the others to get the hell out of there, or at least get out of sight until the enemy shows up. Instead, Chunsheng hops into a truck. We see him in close-up, pretending to drive the way a child might, and the tension is palpable because it seems like the setup for a classic way that movies announce the arrival of an advancing army: a sudden bullet through the windshield to dispatch a minor character. But it doesn’t come, and both Chunsheng and Fugui survive. Yet this moment, which seems at first like a clever bit of directorial sleight of hand, will come to resonate much more profoundly. Chunsheng eventually realizes his dream of becoming a driver, only to accidentally kill Youqing. And by the end, when he’s been denounced as a reactionary, his wife has committed suicide, and Jiazhen is calling in the life he owes them to keep him from killing himself, we can’t help but think that maybe it would have been better for everyone if a bullet had come through that windshield, like we thought it would.

Still, this isn’t a simple case of an angry director finding clever workarounds to condemn a repressive regime. I think Zhang’s politics are genuinely more complicated than that; some of his major works—movies he clearly cares about—lie comfortably within the Party’s strict confines, and he readily includes some of the positive sides of the Revolution: the atmosphere of merry cooperation at the steel works and the communal kitchens, the genuine pride of the townspeople when their efforts produce a modest lump of steel, or the generous camaraderie of the son-in-law Erxi and his crew of Red Guards. And whatever criticisms Zhang may lob at the government, he clearly sees a great deal to admire in regular people. Perhaps his cleverest act of subversion—and the main reason that the movie isn’t a long slog through misery—is that flashes of basic decency and emotional honesty keep overriding ideology and dogma. When Fugui returns home, Jiazhen leaves a water jug overflowing, and no one calls her out for wasting resources. The young nursing students who take over the hospital are arrogant and dismissive, but when things go wrong, they’re as distraught as everyone else. When the family’s modest funeral for Youqing is interrupted with a gaudy arrangement of flowers proclaiming him a hero of the Revolution, Jiazhen flings it on the ground and tells them all to go shove it, and Mr. Niu lets it slide, recognizing that this isn’t the time for Party purity.

For Zhang, the Revolution may not have delivered the utopia it promised, but it wasn’t all misery, and he clearly feels no nostalgia for the society that preceded it, when a few undeserving louts (like Fugui at the time) had it all, while the rest of the country literally carried them on their backs. Some societal realignment needed to happen, and what they got was Communism, which brought some real benefits for many people, but wasn’t immune to the structural problems and human flaws that have been causing small, personal tragedies since the dawn of civilization.

True to form, Zhang closes with a moment that succinctly encapsulates that ambivalence. In a short epilogue “some years later,” the family’s tragic past still weighs heavily on them, either at the forefront or in the background of everything they do. But it’s not all despair: Jiazhen has some version of the quiet life she wanted, and although they’ve suffered great losses, she and Fugui still have a family. They don’t have much, but in some sense, they have enough—the movie ends with them sitting down to eat.

After watching To Live, we don’t necessarily know a great deal more about the history of China in the middle twentieth century than we did before. But we may feel that we understand it in a whole new way, because we’ve been through it with people whose virtues, flaws and aspirations we can all relate to. Just before the credits roll, Fugui and Jiazhen spin a little parable for their grandson about his new chicks growing into oxen. The boy wants to ride an ox, and Fugui declares, “[He] won’t ride an ox. He’ll ride trains and planes, and life will get better and better.” The statement is full of optimism, but the poverty of their surroundings, and the note of resignation in his voice, speak to their own sad experience.

If there’s a more beautifully concise way to capture the emotional life of China in the early years of Communism, the grand promises and the hard reality, I’m not sure what it could be.


© Harrison Swan, 2021

[i] Zhang did attempt a mainstream American blockbuster a few years ago with the Matt Damon action vehicle The Great Wall, but the less said about that, the better.

[ii] And since you’re already thinking it: yes, I’m aware of how clunky and even pretentious that title sounds. Some English versions translate it as Lifetimes, which isn’t much better, but this movie earns such a weighty title as well as any, and it presumably sounds more elegant in Mandarin.

[iii] Throughout this article, I’ll be discussing the movie as it appeals to a Western audience, since that’s the perspective I know. I imagine that the experience would be quite different (and probably more powerful) for a Chinese viewer, especially someone more immediately familiar with the history being depicted.

[iv] This is, by the way, the clearest example of smart adaptation from the source material. The original novel seems (based, it should be said, on the Wikipedia plot synopsis, not my actually having read it) to be more of a fable-esque tragedy; by the end of it, everyone in Fugui’s family has died, leaving him a destitute peasant with only an ox for company. It may well be a powerful read, but I don’t think that version of the story would’ve worked nearly as well onscreen.

[v] Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that. Lavish visuals are lovely to look at, and they often feel quite appropriate in Zhang’s operatic sagas set in quasi-mythical versions of ancient China, like Hero, House of Flying Daggers, or Curse of the Golden Flower (2006).

[vi] That was the Boston Globe critic Ty Burr, writing about the Italian epic The Best of Youth, in a review that seems to have pulled off the rare feat of disappearing from the Internet.

[vii] I liked the solution that the filmmakers found for Ge’s balding: give him a fashionably shaved head at the beginning, then let his greatly receded hairline grow back a bit when he’s playing an older man.

[viii] It was, unsurprisingly, still banned in China, where movies must be transparently pro-Party to make it into the multiplex. But perhaps in winking recognition of the movie’s nuanced view of history, Zhang’s punishment was a relatively lenient two-year ban from filmmaking.

In the Bedroom (2001)

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In describing quality cinema, it’s often said that a movie ‘knows what it is,’ meaning it works well within its brief and doesn’t feel the need to pile on story elements and cinematic flourishes to keep us entertained. Going one step further, we might say there are ‘no wasted moments’—that everything we see serves a clear narrative and/or thematic purpose. Maybe we can’t break down the significance of every shot on the fly, but as with an exceptionally clear and concise piece of writing, there’s a constant, palpable sense of forward momentum. We feel that it’s not so much the artist pulling us along as the work itself; we want to learn more, and it’s eager to show us. And at a certain point, the two phrases begin to converge, both referring to a degree of focus and confidence that’s rarely reached in filmmaking, or indeed in any medium of storytelling. These are the truly exceptional movies, the ones that stick with you—big famous classics, sure, but also more modest masterworks like Todd Field’s often-overlooked 2001 drama In The Bedroom. It still blows my mind that this was Field’s first feature; the movie is many things—beautiful, understated, devastating, even occasionally funny—but the defining quality is one of assurance.[i] No element is superfluous; everything serves to draw us more deeply into the story and the characters. This is the work of an artist who knows exactly what he’s doing every step of the way; all elements, from camera placement to sound design to minute details of acting, have been carefully considered and impeccably executed by everyone involved. And most remarkable of all, it always feels this way, even as the movie makes not one, but two unexpected turns, revealing itself to be something quite different from what we had previously thought.

Such outstanding cinematic craft is always a joy to behold, particularly when it turns up in such an unassuming work.[ii] In The Bedroom features no stunts, no special effects, no fancy editing, and no flashy camera moves. It takes place almost entirely in one small town, in contemporary times; there are no exotic settings or world-significant events or even any particularly remarkable people (which isn’t the same as saying there are no interesting characters.) A few of the excellent cast are quite well known, but none are A-list movie stars. And there aren’t many of them; you could practically count on two hands the total number of speaking roles. In a story driven mainly by interpersonal relationships, they don’t even say very much. In every sense, the movie is almost forcefully small-scale and intimate—as if Field wants to remind us how much can be achieved with a good script, a well thought-out vision, and not much else.

The answer is, of course: an astonishing amount, and you don’t have to dig deeply into film theory to appreciate it. There’s a great deal going on beneath the surface, but Field ensures that on the level of what is explicitly stated and shown, In The Bedroom remains an engrossing piece of work. It starts out as one kind of movie: a young man, Frank Fowler, is back home after graduating from college, enjoying an idyllic summer romance with a slightly older woman named Natalie. She has two young sons and a volatile ex-husband, but Frank’s parents are more concerned that the relationship is distracting him from his graduate school applications. And his father, Matt, isn’t taking the situation as seriously as his mother, Ruth, would like. It’s all recognizable setup for the kind of impassioned but slightly stuffy drama that the Academy loves to shower with awards, one degree removed from soap opera. (The family of Natalie’s ex-husband, Richard, even owns the cannery that employs half the town.)

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Except that impression is violently stripped away at the end of the first act, when Frank is killed in a scuffle with Richard. Suddenly, we see that the movie’s true subject is not so much Frank and Natalie’s romance, but Matt and Ruth’s emotional turmoil after the murder of their only child. Field is hardly the first storyteller to abruptly shift directions in this manner, but unlike many others, he doesn’t treat the pre-twist story merely as filler, hastily sketching out an idyllic context just to blow it up with a shocking murder. Indeed, his narrative misdirection works so well precisely because he does devote an uncommon amount of time and creative attention to the story before the twist. Although there are plenty of subtle hints (especially noticeable on a second viewing) about where things are ultimately headed, the movie engages seriously with the matters at hand; the characters act, realistically, like people who don’t know that disaster is just around the corner. The result is a genuinely involving story to hold our attention as we’re being misled, with interesting character dynamics and story elements that seem set to develop further.

In a lesser drama, for example, Frank would be treated from the outset as a doomed golden boy, too good for a cruel world. Here, in the screenplay by Field and Robert Festinger and in Nick Stahl’s casually appealing performance, Frank is smart and amiable, but he can also be carefree to a fault, tempted to give up his ambitions in favor of the simple lobstering life that he dabbles in every summer, naive about the danger posed by the hotheaded Richard, and unwilling to admit, even to himself, how genuinely in love he is with Natalie. He is, in other words, a realistically complex young man; like Matt and Ruth, we don’t quite realize what an agreeable and interesting presence he is until he’s gone. Natalie, for her part, isn’t just the beautiful older lover seducing him away from real life, à la Mrs. Robinson. While less educated than Frank, she’s considerably wiser and more clear-eyed about their relationship—when he goes on imaginative flights of fancy about staying together, she pushes back with some of the same counterpoints his mother might make. She’s much more familiar with the ups and downs of adult life (marriage, children, divorce), and Field pays close attention to the way her experience has shaped her personality. So she’s naturally tough and perceptive, but also anxious, uncertain, and easily flustered—we get the sense that she’s still struggling to come to terms with the difficult turns her life has taken, and sees Frank as a wonderful, if necessarily transitory, escape. Even Richard is more than a straightforward monster; the script and Field’s direction inject some real pathos into what could easily have been a fairly one-note character. Richard is still a nightmare ex-husband—short-fused and domineering, probably at least halfway sociopathic—but we also see the source of some of that anger. Having grown up free of struggle—scion of a wealthy family, star athlete in high school, married to the prettiest girl in town—he’s still a spoiled child in many ways, ill-equipped to handle difficulty when it comes and unable to get his life together afterwards.

Most of all, Field takes care to develop the personalities of Matt and Ruth, ensuring that we’re interested in them even before they become the story’s main characters, and thereby making their grief all the more immediate and shattering when it arrives. Matt comes across mostly as a typical affable dad, with the good-natured confidence of a man who has worked hard and been duly rewarded for it. Field subtly telegraphs the broad outlines of Matt’s life story: a local guy who left to pursue his education and satisfy some youthful wanderlust, now comfortably settled into his role as the town’s primary care physician. However, you can understand Ruth’s wish that he’d take things more seriously; he’s possessed of the same easygoing attitude that Frank often exhibits. He’s similarly deaf to concerns about Natalie—partly, one imagines, as a result of his own life having mostly gone well, and partly, although he’d never admit it, out of pride for his son’s conquest of a beautiful older woman. He clearly takes a certain amount of vicarious pleasure in the affair, coming as it does at a time when he might be inclined to think ruefully back on his own marriage, which seems to have been happy, but perhaps not very eventful. Ruth, meanwhile, is much like Matt in many respects: intelligent and well-respected, highly educated but very much at home in a small coastal town, even though the outlet she has found for her refined interests—teaching Eastern European folk music to distracted girls in the high school choir—doesn’t seem to be quite as fulfilling as his. And while she’s better able (or simply more willing) to see the potential pitfalls in Frank’s relationship, it isn’t always in good faith. Without beating us over the head with it, Field makes the dynamic clear: Ruth is right that Frank is being naive and letting the relationship distract him, but her disapproval has at least as much to do with her slightly condescending view of Natalie, reinforced by teachers’ lounge gossip: a nice young woman, but unsophisticated and with suspect morals. Moreover, it’s hard to argue with Matt’s point that Ruth’s harping on the issue won’t accomplish very much, and might even make Frank less inclined to follow her advice, even if it is sound.

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These are rich and interesting character dynamics, and the actors explore them with exceptional grace and insight. Without ever saying so, Tom Wilkinson signals both Matt’s vicarious enjoyment of Frank’s relationship and the personality traits underlying it.[iii] William Mapother deftly conveys the nuances of Richard’s belligerence, making him both terrifying and vaguely pathetic, somehow at his most menacing when he’s trying to make things right—I don’t know that I’ve ever seen another actor make a single aggressive twitch-fake so startling and unnerving. Especially impressive is Marisa Tomei, who combines into a single coherent personality both the shock and stress brought on by Natalie’s divorce, and the keen vivaciousness that’s the source of Frank’s attraction and of Richard’s lingering obsession. And all hail the great Sissy Spacek, who delivers one of the most true-to-life performances I’ve ever seen. Through precise line readings and subtle facial expressions, she communicates volumes about Ruth—little, long-percolating resentments; sophistication sliding into snobbery and back again; and formidable, mutually reinforcing intelligence and pride.

Our burgeoning investment in the interplay between these characters makes Frank’s violent death all the more shocking, and the emotional fallout all the more believable and devastating. Richard’s selfishness and sense of victimhood preclude any chance of real remorse, while Natalie’s anxiety, understandably heightened after such a traumatic event, leads to a small but crucial mistake at the trial. Even Matt’s lifelong best friend Willis becomes a quietly wrenching presence as he struggles to help Matt through an ordeal he never thought their friendship would have to face. Most powerfully, though, we see the consequences for the parents. Matt’s laid-back demeanor tragically mutates into an almost aggressive stoicism as he pushes relentlessly forward with his life, burying his emotions and putting on a brave face at all costs. Meanwhile, Ruth’s tendency towards aloofness curdles into a complete withdrawal from the world—there’s a bitterly poignant irony in the images of her smoking and watching crappy TV for hours on end: exactly the sort of behavior she would’ve previously scoffed at—while at the same time, and not so much through overt acting signals as through sheer force of will, Spacek shows her grief and wounded pride settling into a deep-seated, merciless rage. (It’s telling that the two physical displays of that rage, a slap across the face and a smashed plate, land with almost as much force as the two outbreaks of deadly violence elsewhere in the movie.) Field’s deliberate, economical storytelling is especially powerful here; with very little dialogue, he and his cast make palpable not only the crushing emptiness of the weeks after Frank’s death, but the mounting tension as Matt and Ruth stew silently in their toxically contradictory forms of grief. That directorial restraint, and the careful character development that comes before it, pay off beautifully in the remarkable scene when Matt and Ruth’s resentments finally boil over. The movies are full of characters hurling verbal abuse at each other, but it rarely feels so powerfully vicious as it does here. That’s because Field has made sure we know Matt and Ruth more intimately than is typical of characters in a movie—we feel the sting of the insults because we know that they’re grounded in truth. And in a broader sense, even though our own lives may not align with those of the characters, their motivations are understandable, their flaws are relatable, and their struggles—love complicated by family and social pressures, the separate and conflicting ways that parents grieve the loss of a child, what might drive law-abiding citizens to exact violent revenge—are universally compelling, not tethered to any one place or even to a particular era.

Which is especially remarkable, because the setting is highly specific, and thoroughly spliced into the movie’s artistic DNA. I’ll admit I can’t be entirely objective about this; I grew up in Mid-Coast Maine and have spent a great deal of time in the area right around Camden, where In The Bedroom takes place. So it’s distinctly satisfying to see a movie that’s not only set in Maine, but actually filmed there—a much rarer occurrence than you might expect. Largely thanks to Stephen King and his extensive, very film-adaptable body of work, Maine is, if anything, over-represented at the multiplex in proportion to its size, yet for whatever reason, filmmakers almost never shoot within the Pine Tree State.[iv] It’s a distinction that may well be invisible to non-Mainers, but take it from a native: this movie captures Maine—more specifically, the tourist/fishing villages like Camden—like no other that I’ve seen.[v]

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This is unusual but not surprising; Field lives just down the road in Rockland. He’s intimately familiar with the look and feel of coastal Maine in the summer, and the movie is full of wonderfully apt details that no substitute location could convincingly replicate. The authenticity is visible in the color palette, which is rich but not stylized, dominated instead by natural hues: the vivid, pervasive green of the vegetation, tinged with a yellowish haze of pollen; the golden fields of long grass drying out after weeks of hot weather; the forbidding yet somehow magnetic darkness of evergreen woods at dawn. It’s visible in the soft sunlight still filtering into a dockland bar long after work; in the hushed, almost ethereal tones of a long evening, with twilight lingering through a whole choir recital; and especially in the blazing sun, amplified by reflections off the white granite shoreline and water vapor in the air, still retaining a hint of the harshness typical of natural light at northern latitudes. It’s visible in the sturdy brick and wood-clapboard buildings, built primarily to withstand wind and cold, looking ever so slightly incongruous amid all that green and sunlight. It’s even audible in the soundscape: the harbor mélange of lapping water, squawking gulls, and distant boat engines; the ubiquitous rustling of leaves in the sea breeze; and the soothing, long-familiar voices of Joe Castiglione and Jerry Trupiano calling the Red Sox game.

Field’s deep understanding of the setting is most apparent in his characters, who, despite being uncommonly relatable, feel so seamlessly rooted in their environment that it’s hard to imagine them anywhere else. This is evident, first and foremost, in the way they speak. Field and Festinger’s script (adapted from, and intelligently expanded upon, a beautifully tense short story by Andre Dubus) is conventionally compelling: eloquently expressive, but also markedly straightforward and concise, lacking in the rhetorical flourishes typical of ‘prestige’ cinema—all of which is perfectly representative of the region, where candor and brevity in speech are still traditionally valued. In The Bedroom even attains that Holy Grail of regional filmmaking: getting the accents right. Although the problem is usually apparent only to residents, New England accents are notoriously difficult for movies to get right; actors have a tendency to bury their Rs under vowels so broad that they stretch the word halfway to a Southern drawl. It makes for fun scenery-chewing, but no one in New England actually talks like that (except perhaps if they’re a lifelong Bostonian, and hammered.) But here, Marisa Tomei doesn’t just nail it, she nails the subtle differences between the Boston brogue and the coastal Maine variant: the slight upward inflection of the dropped Rs, and the vowel sounds broadened but clipped at the ends, carrying the faintest trace of a Canadian twang. Field also understands that the accent varies considerably even within a small town, dependent upon one’s family, personal history, and social class. So Richard, having grown up wealthy, has a less pronounced accent than the thoroughly working-class Natalie. Ruth’s measured, halfway patrician speech patterns reflect her advanced education and cosmopolitan background, while Matt’s time away from town and his pursuit of a medical degree have largely neutralized whatever accent he may have had. Frank’s speech is similarly neutral, with only the occasional dropped R to indicate his birthplace and, perhaps, his growing attraction to the simple life it offers. Willis and his wife Katie have the casual but pronounced accents of people who have spent so much of their lives in one place that they don’t notice the accents anymore.

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Still, vocal inflection and body language are only part of it; the actors, none of whom are from Maine, fit seamlessly into the Camden milieu, right down to the clothes they wear. With his slightly lumbering gait and semi-formal attire resting rather awkwardly over his tall, hulking frame, Wilkinson looks so thoroughly local that you might never guess he’s from northern England, trained at elite British acting schools. Stahl’s flowing hair and embroidered jeans are effective, if slightly dated, indications of Frank’s artistic leanings and easygoing confidence, and while no character played by Marisa Tomei could ever be described as ‘plain,’ her unstyled hair and workaday clothes are just right for a busy single mom of the Maine coast. With his thick blue jeans and plain-colored work shirts covering an ample gut, William Wise, whose performance as Willis is in many ways the movie’s secret weapon, could have stepped out of any greasy spoon diner in the state. And Spacek, with her clogs, wool-lined denim jacket, and flowing, vaguely Sixties-ish shirts, is uncanny in her embodiment of the rural, educated New England women of her generation—only a few artsy degrees removed from own mother, and a spitting image of some of her peers. (All that’s missing is the Maine Public Radio tote bag.) I don’t mean to belabor the point, but I can’t emphasize enough how true these people feel, to the place, to the time, and to the story—and that deep sense of authenticity only makes the movie more realistic and emotionally relatable.

Most of all, however, In The Bedroom works because of Field’s superb command of the fundamentals of narrative filmmaking. The actors are all skilled enough to communicate a great deal without speaking, and Field has a gift for getting us on the same wavelength through careful, understated camerawork and editing, priming us to notice non-verbal cues and register the depth of the performances. The clearest example is his highly selective use of the handheld camera, which makes itself apparent on only two occasions when passions boil over and throw the world violently thrown off balance: Frank’s murder, and the moment when Matt and Ruth finally lash out at each other. In both cases, Field switches to handheld several beats before the breaking point, subtly setting us on edge as the situation begins to spiral out of control, and he immediately switches back to static shots as the consequences settle firmly, brutally, and irrevocably into place. Significantly, the camera remains smooth and steady throughout the long, tense sequence when Matt kidnaps and eventually kills Richard—this isn’t a spontaneous crime of passion, but a coldly premeditated murder.

Nor is it just the big, memorable moments; Field’s visual precision enhances every scene, no matter how minor. Early on, Natalie comes home to find Richard in her dining room. The scene is fairly straightforward: two people talking, alternating between static, front-angle views of the actors—the conventional ‘shot/reverse shot’ method. But all the way through, Field’s framing complements the scene. He focuses on one character at a time, but includes both of them in the frame, emphasizing how entwined their lives still are. He frames Richard at the same distance, but moves a few steps closer in on Natalie, reflecting how increasingly threatened she feels. At the point of direct confrontation, when she tells Richard to leave, we see them both in close-up, with Natalie, trying to break free, finally by herself, but her shoulder still in the frame with Richard, who still won’t leave her alone. The framing is similarly, deceptively expressive in the scene at the lawyer’s office. Matt and Ruth are together only when she loses it and shouts at the lawyer; when they’re simply talking, trying to make sense of things, Field isolates them in the frame with conspicuous empty spaces beside them, signaling the bitter divisions that their grief and anger will soon expose. Even the sound design plays into it; Field establishes a contrast between sounds closer to nature (rustling leaves, chopping wood, clipping branches) which are softer and less obtrusive, and noises from man-made sources, which are notably loud and grating—a lawn mower, boat and ATV engines, and especially the grind of the cash register at the mini-mart where Natalie works, which becomes almost unbearably jarring as it interrupts her and Matt’s whispered, tortured attempts to put their emotions into words. A static shot of Matt and Frank down at the harbor that shifts with the motion of the floating dock, indicating the rocky foundations that this normalcy rests on; the last of a wine bottle poured into Matt’s glass in the foreground and Ruth’s veiled disapproval behind it, setting up the stinging remark that will eventually ignite their argument… I could go on, but it would be both tedious and impossible to enumerate every example of Field’s exemplary craft. Indeed, discovering more of these subtle touches is one of the principal pleasures of watching (and re-watching) this movie.

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Craft alone doesn’t guarantee quality, though—as demonstrated by the countless mediocre works by skilled directors. In The Bedroom benefits not only from masterful execution, but from an exceptionally well thought-out narrative structure. Every moment reflects Field’s carefully considered vision, lending the movie the ineffable sense of assurance that makes it a masterpiece. Nothing is superfluous; everything circles back and resonates later on, in ways unexpected and often wrenching. For example, we meet the local priest, and he seems to be there mostly to add color to the setting (look at this quaint, laid-back little town, where the priest will drop by a cookout have a beer!) and to deliver a bland eulogy for Frank. Except he turns up again during Ruth’s visit to the cemetery, where he tells a surprisingly weird, borderline trippy story about another mother who lost a child. Frank’s friend Tim starts out as a bit player, there to speak a few lines reinforcing Frank’s popularity and cry at his funeral. But then he shows up much later on at the bar, where a desperate Matt corners him in search of new evidence, and he gets to deliver one of the movie’s most ominously loaded lines: “It’s funny running into you…here, Dr. Fowler…” At first, the background sound of the Red Sox game on the radio adds to the carefree-summer vibe; in tense moments later on, its incongruousness becomes downright eerie. The wistful folk songs performed by Ruth’s choir are pleasantly evocative, then crushingly ironic, and finally (especially in retrospect) horribly portentous of the dark final act. Matt placing an old Navy hat on little Jason’s head, a slow zoom in on a Maine Veteran license plate, a pan across Willis’s old war photos and medals—only in retrospect do we realize that Field is setting up a psychological context for the final act. Both Matt and Willis served in Vietnam; they’re acquainted with violence, and depending on what the war did to their sense of patriotism, perhaps more skeptical than most of the state’s commitment to true justice. My favorite is their friend Carl, a poetry buff who comes across as an amusing eccentric, driving the guys crazy with poetry recitations during their poker games—until after Frank’s death, when he recites (beautifully) a stanza by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that perfectly captures the roiling emotions of the moment.

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Once again, I could continue like this ad nauseam, and even then, I wouldn’t have fully articulated how wonderfully layered and immersive In The Bedroom is. That’s a sure sign of great filmmaking: that even when you know the twists and understand why the movie works, there’s always more to unpack, more moments of unassuming brilliance waiting to be discovered. Even without a big budget or Hollywood flash, Field made a masterpiece back in 2001, a compelling exploration not only of grief and revenge, but of a region, a culture, and a generation—and it still deserves to be remembered alongside the great dramas of all time.

Here’s hoping he comes back and makes another someday. 

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© Harrison Swan, 2019

[i] This isn’t the only unusual thing about Field’s biography. Born in the L.A. area but raised mostly in Portland, Oregon, he was well on his way to being a recognizable character actor, playing the lead in a couple of late-90s indie movies and a crucial supporting role in Stanley Kubrick’s flawed but compelling final work Eyes Wide Shut. Then he sidelined all that to try his hand at directing, reportedly encouraged by Kubrick, who allowed Field to observe him behind the camera on off days. After the success of In The Bedroom, Field took his time until 2006, when he directed and co-wrote, with Tom Perrotta, an adaptation of Perotta’s novel Little Children. The movie, also about the dark side of a pleasant New England town, was lauded by critics and showered with Oscar nominations, and Field seemed set to do pretty much whatever he wanted. Instead, he abruptly dropped off the map and hasn’t made a movie since. He lives far from Hollywood, which probably doesn’t help, but it’s still unusual for a filmmaker to disappear so completely after such a promising start.

[ii] The budget, by the way, was $1.7 million: not nothing, but tiny for a feature film with established actors, especially considering that it went on to receive five Oscar nominations. It also ended up earning $43.4 million at the box office—enough to make it, in terms of the expense-to-profit ratio, one of the most financially successful movies of all time.

[iii] It’s interesting to consider that despite being solidly established as a working actor both in the U.K. and increasingly in America, Wilkinson still wasn’t known to a wide audience at the time. In The Bedroom came out in 2001, still a few years before Wilkinson’s meaty supporting role as the gangster Carmine Falcone in Batman Begins. Since then, he’s become one of the more recognizable ‘hey, it’s that guy!’ actors in Hollywood, appearing in all manner of big-budget productions. Likewise, Sissy Spacek, despite being widely recognized as a prodigiously talented actress, had largely (if not completely) retreated from the big screen since starting a family in the 1980s. In The Bedroom was the beginning of her return to a busy acting career.

[iv] In fact, a reliable sign that a movie set in Maine wasn’t filmed there (aside from the IMDb page saying so) is a scarcity of pines and other evergreen trees in the background. Conifers are quite common throughout the Maine woods, while deciduous trees quickly begin to dominate as you move further south.

[v] To nitpick: Field does take one (very) minor bit of dramatic license involving Old Orchard Beach, a bizarre tourist town that, for some reason, openly seeks to replicate the look and feel of Coney Island or Atlantic City. Gaudy, seedy, and party-oriented, it makes perfect sense as the place where Richard would end up tending bar, but the geography is slightly off: O.O.B., as it’s known, is part of a string of beach towns near the New Hampshire border, nearly three hours south of Camden. The timing of Matt and Willis’ plan becomes a bit of a stretch at that distance, and in any case, if Richard were living so far away, it’s unlikely that Ruth would regularly see him around Camden.