Road to Perdition (2002)

I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about the 20th century. I’ve always found it fascinating, as so many others have and probably always will, given how much significant stuff happened and how well documented it is, compared to earlier historical periods. I’m not a history buff, and for me it’s always been a layman’s interest, low-key and not very sharply focused. But it has, perhaps inevitably, been supercharged in the past year and a half. Nowadays, any time before Covid belongs to a bygone age of innocence, and the years before the new millennium…come on, now. Of course, my rational mind knows it’s not ancient history—I was, after all, born in the 20th century, deep enough to remember a bit of it—but now more than ever, it seems like the days of yore, more similar to the murky, distant past than the world we live in.

Tom Hanks, director Sam Mendes, cinematographer Conrad L. Hall, and the rest of their collaborators obviously couldn’t have foreseen the Covid pandemic—or the Trump presidency, or the rise of social media, or any of the other phenomena that now make the early 20th century feel so far removed from the present. But that fact is, I think, a key reason why Road to Perdition, the solidly good Depression-era gangster movie they all made in 2002, remains so appealing today.

It was only Mendes’s second feature, but he had been a prominent stage director in England since the late 80s, and his debut, American Beauty (1999), had been a massive success, winning several of the most prestigious Academy Awards. (In more ways than one, that movie hasn’t aged particularly well, but it remains an impressive display of Mendes’s skill.) He’s been a dependable, respectable fixture in the industry ever since, making mostly good movies at a measured, steady pace. He made two well-received dramas, Jarhead (2005) and Revolutionary Road (2008), then a sweet-tempered dramedy, Away We Go (2009) that I, like some critics, found unremarkable, and more than a little smug. He made one of the best James Bond movies of all time, Skyfall (2012), promptly followed by one of the worst, Spectre (2015), of which only the spectacular opening tracking shot is worth seeing.[i] Most recently, he went all in on that concept with 1917 (2019), a First World War movie whose single-take conceit was so technically stunning its other elements were not so much overshadowed as rendered practically irrelevant. His work has been criticized, with some justification, as excessively deliberate and composed, holding the emotional core of the story at arm’s length. But it’s impossible to deny his great talents, both as a director of actors (most stars seem eager to work with him, and he guides almost all of them to fantastic performances) and as an elegant visual stylist with a keen eye for detail.

So it is with Road to Perdition, which, unlike some movies I write about here, I wouldn’t call a spotless masterpiece, sublime from start to finish. One could take issue with its rather cold and clinical approach to the story, for example; or with its conception of some supporting characters and the resulting performances: Jude Law as the twisted freelance killer Maguire, and Daniel Craig as the hotheaded Connor Rooney; or with the way that a random but important elderly couple, and the perfunctory episode where the protagonists recuperate at their farm, end up feeling somewhat shoehorned into the larger narrative. Still, these are minor flaws, and all are notably tempered in some way; how significant they are is likely to be different depending on the viewer. I, for one, think the movie would benefit from being a little less aloof, but I understand why Mendes took that approach, and it pays great dividends in other ways. Whatever you think of Law and Craig, neither of them actually has much screen time, and that efficiency of use is a key reason why I find both their performances quite effective. For similar reasons, I don’t mind the interlude at the farmhouse; it’s a bit awkwardly handled, but it quickly and efficiently fulfills its function in the narrative, and it is in keeping with Mendes’s restrained vision for the movie.

None of these issues, certainly, are serious enough to overshadow the movie’s great strengths—with which they are often closely intertwined. Mendes, as we’ve mentioned, has always been great with actors, and whether those supporting characters work for you or not, Road to Perdition is undoubtedly anchored by some fantastic lead performances. It was marketed as a major departure for Tom Hanks—America’s friendliest, most neighborly movie star plays a cold-blooded hit man! There’s some truth to that, and Hanks is more than capable of pulling off the transformation: with a slightly bulked-up frame lurking under a thick overcoat and fedora, and that subtly intimidating moustache, he looks the part of Irish Mob enforcer Michael Sullivan, and despite the character’s outwardly calm demeanor, his willingness to kill comes as no surprise. And yet, the role isn’t quite as radical as the promotional materials claimed; as Stephen Holden writes, “because Sullivan is played by Mr. Hanks, an actor who invariably exudes conscientiousness and decency, his son’s question [whether his father is “a good man” or “no good at all”] lends the fable a profound moral ambiguity… Acutely aware of his sins, Sullivan is determined that his son, who takes after him temperamentally, not follow in his murderous footsteps.”[ii] The ruthless gangster who’s also a devoted husband and father, striving to shelter his family from the violence of his work life, is a classic figure in cinema, and Hanks turns out to be an ideal actor for such a role. He has the dramatic range to convincingly capture both the character’s hard edges and his tender core, and perhaps because of his broader image as the designated decent guy of Hollywood, his performance illustrates more vividly than most how easily a basically decent person, who might otherwise have led a perfectly moral life, can become a killer if they are rescued from deprivation by a violent community like the mob.

That element of the story also comes across especially powerfully because of the masterful performance on the other side of it: the late, great Paul Newman as mob boss and local patriarch John Rooney. It was something of a swan song for the 77-year-old star: his final role in a movie, at least in the traditional sense. (He would go on to appear a few more times on stage, on television, and as a voice actor before his death in 2008.) It’s a perfect part for him, and the Oscar nomination he received for it was not one of those token nods given to an icon at the end of an illustrious career; Mick LaSalle expressed it well when he wrote that “Newman, who has [apparently] been playing too many crotchety geezers lately, finally gets a role that does justice to his gravity and presence. As Rooney, he’s a picture of healthy old age, straight-backed and clear-eyed, but with the look of someone who has seen horrors. Like virtually everything else in Road to Perdition, not much is on the surface of Newman’s performance. Yet every moment is alive with what’s underneath it—the weight of a misspent life, of guilt, of the certainty of damnation.”[iii] Like Hanks, Newman seamlessly captures both sides of his character: the ruthlessness and resulting capacity to inspire fear, as well as the better angels—devotion to those he loves, guilt for the violence he’s done, and desire to limit it as much as possible—struggling for space in the soul of a deeply conflicted man.

Hanks and Newman are superb on their own terms, and their performances are also crucial to the success of Mendes’s subtly unconventional approach. At first glance, this movie seems like a prime example of what’s often called ‘prestige’ filmmaking, in which major studios (DreamWorks and 20th Century Fox, in this case) attempt to bolster their artistic integrity by bestowing their unmatched financial resources on reputational counterweights to all those frivolous, spectacularly profitable blockbusters—often lavish period pieces that lean into the ‘magic of cinema’ aspect of the medium. Road to Perdition is undoubtedly such a movie, and it bears some of the hallmarks: the star-studded cast, the richly realized Depression-era setting, the mostly classical-Hollywood score by Thomas Newman, and the thematic focus on the emotional complexities of family bonds in the midst of crisis.

Here, that focus rests squarely on fathers and sons, and it’s not limited to the primary, relatively familiar journey of the hardened Sullivan learning to connect with his son, Michael Jr., when the rest of their comfortable existence is violently torn away. The movie explores a triangle of father-son relationships—between Sullivan and Michael, of course, but also between Sullivan and his surrogate father, Rooney, and between Rooney and his biological son, Connor—which feed off each other and collectively serve as the primary driver of the story. Technically, the inciting incident is when Michael, consumed with curiosity about what his father really does for a living, ends up witnessing a murder, leading Connor, who doesn’t trust him to keep the secret, to decide to kill the whole Sullivan family. But Connor’s reckless plan is also motivated by jealously and resentment of the special relationship between Sullivan and Rooney, full of the sort of paternal love and approval that Connor himself craves—and which, going back even further, is the ultimately the reason why Sullivan is involved in the mob in the first place.

The thematic implications of this tangled emotional web, and the story it sets in motion, are interesting and varied, and Road to Perdition does a compelling job of exploring them. As Holden writes, “the movie captures, like no film I’ve seen, the fear-tinged awe with which young boys regard their fathers and the degree to which that awe continues to reverberate into adult life. Viewed through his son’s eyes, Sullivan, whose face is half-shadowed much of the time by the brim of his fedora, is a largely silent deity, the benign but fearsome source of all knowledge and wisdom.” Tyler Hoechlin (in a fine performance for a 14-year-old actor) makes this dynamic clear, but it also persists, in a subtler way, between Sullivan and Rooney, blinding the younger man to the darker sides of their relationship (a definitive highlight of Newman’s performance is the scene in the crypt when he eloquently disabuses Sullivan of his illusions). And it’s certainly the case for Connor, who flails in his efforts to please his father and make a name for himself, and still wilts in the face of the old man’s anger.

And at the same time, we see the same dynamic working in reverse, confirming Rooney’s early pronouncement that “sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers.” Sullivan’s determination to keep his children away from his violent world is complicated even before wife and younger son are killed, by the mounting evidence that Michael has inherited some of the harder edges of his personality. Connor, of course, causes all sorts of problems for Rooney, who, in turn, finally meets his maker at the hands of the surrogate son whom he loved more, but who was, at the end of the day, not his own flesh and blood.

Another closely related theme is the effect of violence on these relationships. Is it possible for a father to shield his son from the cost of his own sins—or even, perhaps, achieve some measure of redemption through that effort? How does exposure to violence affect children, and does it inevitably lead them to violence themselves? These are thorny issues, and the movie doesn’t presume to offer definitive answers. On the latter question, we initially get the pessimistic answer in the characters of Sullivan and especially Connor, whose psychosis seems to be, at least in part, an inevitable result of growing up in the mob. But the ending, in which Michael finds himself unable to pull the trigger, offers a more hopeful conclusion that tempers some of the grimness that came before.

That grimness also stems from the air of inevitability that follows these characters for much of the movie. This isn’t so much about the old truism that it’s impossible to walk away from the mob; in fact, Sullivan is effectively offered that chance multiple times, and he refuses. Nor is it about the damage that the mob does to society; as Roger Ebert notes, “the movie shares with The Godfather the useful tactic of keeping the actual victims out of view. There are no civilians here, destroyed by mob activity. All the characters, good and bad, are supplied from within the mob. But there is never the sense that any of these characters will tear loose, think laterally, break the chains of their fate.”[iv] There are twists and revelations here, but for most of the movie, the main source of audience engagement isn’t a burning desire to find out what will happen, or what a character will do. As Rooney points out, Michael was always going to find out what his father did sometime. Once he does, and Connor sees that he has, and Rooney, enraged at his son’s reckless response to that problem, relents and hugs him tightly, the paths of the main characters are more or less set. In the tradition of classical tragedy, the story feels driven not so much by mounting pressure as by the pull of gravity, as that tangled web of relationships and motivations gently but inexorably nudges the characters toward their fates.

And yet, most of us don’t come out of Road to Perdition feeling that we saw a brutally bleak movie, or a boring one. It may not be particularly ground-breaking in a narrative or thematic sense, but great acting nevertheless makes those aspects powerfully felt, and that gives Mendes the space to put a more distinctive stylistic stamp on it than we often see in this sort of prestige filmmaking. To characterize his style, the first word that comes to mind is ‘minimalist,’ but that’s only true in a narrative sense. The movie is based on a graphic novel by Max Alan Collins, but only loosely, as the screenplay by David Self and some uncredited re-writers (probably including Mendes, in some capacity) ended up departing quite a bit from the source material, adding the Maguire character, toning down the carnage and the brutality of the protagonist—as great an actor as he is, Hanks can’t convincingly play a character known as ‘The Angel of Death’—and distilling the narrative down to its fundamental elements.[v] As a result, the story unfolds at a stately pace, but with great efficiency, and most of the dialogue remaining after all those cuts is concise and expressive, allowing the actors to convey great deal not only through words, but through the other tools of their trade.

A better way to put it is that Road to Perdition is narratively minimalist, but sensorily lavish. It’s simply a lovely movie to experience, in both a visual and auditory sense, and this is the other major reason it’s so engaging. The sound design is understated but highly effective; all gun-related sounds, from shots firing to the slides and clicks of other functions, ring out in harsh contrast to the otherwise subdued soundscape, representing the jarring incursion of violence into everyone’s outwardly respectable lives. And Mendes has a cool habit of subtly jacking up tension at key moments by slowly increasing the volume of a single sound within the scene: music in the other room at a brothel, the whir of a stock market ticker tape during a standoff, or waves breaking outside as Michael tries to pull the trigger on Maguire.

But first and foremost, we’re talking about the visuals here, because they are remarkable. As it was for Newman, Road to Perdition turned out to be a swan song for the legendary cinematographer Conrad L. Hall, who died in 2003, less than a year after the movie came out.[vi] Taking inspiration from the paintings of Edward Hopper, Hall does exquisite things with light, shadow and darkness, crafting a vision of the early-30s Chicago area that’s too gorgeously stylized to be called realistic, yet somehow never completely abandons realism. It would be futile to try to unpack the gorgeous images that result (where would you even begin?), but suffice it to say that I never get tired of looking at them; I think Holden put it best, writing that Hall and Mendes “have created a truly majestic visual tone poem, one that…inspires a continuing and deeply satisfying awareness of the best movies as monumental ‘picture shows.’” Even the thrill of so-called ‘action,’ of which there is a decent amount (this is a gangster movie, after all, in which many people get shot), is mostly conveyed not through stunts, but through visual flourishes that are conspicuous without being overly indulgent. When Michael witnesses the shootout, we see it all from his vantage point, under a door; when Rooney’s men are gunned down, we see the muzzle flash in darkness, then a slow tracking shot, drifting from man to man as they fall; when Sullivan finally gets his revenge on Connor, we see the dead man only in the mirror on a door swinging shut.

This is what I meant earlier, about the 20th century and the enduring appeal of Road to Perdition. There are many reasons for the lasting popularity of gangster movies, but Mendes, Hall and the rest understood that especially in recent years, a large (and underappreciated) part of the genre’s appeal is simply aesthetic. So they chose to lean in to that element of the story, an effort that involved not only Hall, but also production designer Dennis Gassner, art director Richard L. Johnson, costume designer Albert Wolsky, and the countless artists and technicians working under them. They did a magnificent job, and the result is a movie that, even back in the carefree year of 2002, when they didn’t even have to worry too much about climate change (I mean, they did, but the world wasn’t literally on fire yet), indulges the nostalgia for the 20th century that we can’t help but feel, even though we know better. Of course we know that clothes in the 30s were pretty uncomfortable, but people sure did look good in them. Of course vehicles back then didn’t work nearly as well as they do today, but god damn, those cars are cool. Of course these cities and towns were pits of despair at that time, but man, those images sure are stunning.

We don’t really wish we were back in that world. But especially amid the madness of 2021, it’s lovely to spend a couple hours there.

© Harrison Swan, 2021

[i] Very awesome. The rest of the movie, not so much.





[vi] Newman and Hall had collaborated before, with impressive results: Cool Hand Luke and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Take Shelter (2011)

How do you make a horror movie that matters? Sure, many of them technically examine deep questions: how do humans behave when the façade of society crumbles, how do you react when a supernatural entity manifests your worst fears, and so on. But to make a horror movie that, like, really matters, that takes place in the world we know, and has something genuinely profound to say about it? That’s something special—extra-difficult for a filmmaker to pull off, and a rare treat for audiences when they do.

That Jeff Nichols did pull it off—at the age of 32, in only his second feature film—is an indication of his talents, both as a storyteller and as a cinematic craftsman. He’s a paragon of what we might call the ‘regional’ filmmaker, whose sensibilities revolve around a certain type of setting rather than a certain genre or visual style. For Nichols, who grew up in Little Rock and studied film at the University of North Carolina, that defining setting is close to home—call it ‘rural America, leaning towards the South.’ His body of work is still small, but his area of interest is clear, even as he’s ranged widely within it and explored several different genres: violent family feud in rural Arkansas (Shotgun Stories, 2007), coming of age story on the Arkansas Mississippi River (Mud, 2012), supernatural sci-fi in Texas (Midnight Special, 2016), and historical biopic in 1960s Virginia (Loving, also 2016). Take Shelter is a bit of an outlier, but only in a strictly geographical sense; the small Ohio town where our protagonist, Curtis LaForche, and his family live has just as much in common, thematically and aesthetically, with the Southern locales of Nichols’ other films as it does with the Northern metropolises of the surrounding region.

In terms of genre, the movie fits nicely into Nichols’s pattern—in the sense that its genre is markedly different from his other works. The great categorizers of Wikipedia and IMDb don’t call it a horror movie, counting it instead as a psychological drama or thriller. I understand the reasons, but for once, I think they’re wrong; Nichols engages too deeply and effectively with the conventions of horror for Take Shelter to be called anything else. Consider the time-honored horror tropes that show up here: ominous storm clouds dropping unnatural precipitation, weird changes in animal behavior, creepy figure standing stark still and staring creepily into the camera, faceless strangers turned psychotic by unknown forces, door battered by unseen intruder, and many more. The way these moments are played by the actors, filmed by Nichols and cinematographer Adam Stone, edited by Parke Gregg, and scored by David Wingo, is all textbook horror-movie stuff, and they achieve the desired effect as well as any.

That being said, Take Shelter is notably restrained, very much a slow-burn, mounting-dread sort of horror flick, as opposed to the jump-scare, blood-and-guts variety. I’ve always preferred this approach to horror, because it’s harder to do well and more fun to watch when it is. And some part of my affection for this movie surely stems from the way I first saw it: in a packed-to-bursting theater in Paris on a rainy night. Their reputation for snobbery may be largely deserved, but Parisians love good American cinema as much as anyone, and the tension in the room was electric. Which was no accident, because Nichols does a masterful job of creating pervasive, understated suspense.

For one thing, he does it without resorting to number of fairly easy (and thus very commonly used) horror shortcuts. He doesn’t have his protagonists living in a typically creepy setting; their home and neighborhood are intentionally not distinctive in any particular direction. Nor does he utilize the ultra-dreary color pallet that horror movies often go for, which can give even the most pleasant image an air of impending doom. He doesn’t even set the story in the bleak midwinter, when the unembellished colors he does use would have added a bit of gloom; instead, he shoots his Ohio setting at the peak of its verdant midsummer pleasantness.

There are thematic reasons for this plain aesthetic, which we’ll get to in a bit, but Nichols’s willingness to stick to it is also a mark of justified confidence in what he does do to build tension. His camerawork is unshowy but precise, using straightforward techniques to emphasize the unsettling aspects of a scene: close-ups on something important, static shots carefully framed to highlight the anxiety in key moments, or an extra movement that ends a tracking shot on a weird and unexpected note. The sound design is also impeccable, giving a nervous edge to unremarkable sounds—rustling leaves, rain on windows, engines of all kinds—and holding uneasily on the silence of someone tuned out of their surroundings, before a jarring jolt back to reality. Wingo’s score helps to maintain tension between the scares, with soft, often lovely tones interwoven with notes of anxiety, lulling us into a sense of security we know is false. Nichols even does it through casting, and not just the two leads; consider his decision to have Curtis’s friend and workmate Dewart played by the unknown-but-ubiquitous Shea Whigham, a terrific character actor with a wonderfully peculiar face and manner, equally ideal for giving an air of offbeat humanity to a bad character, or (in this case) an air of offbeat menace to a good character.

Especially important is the widely varied way that Nichols portrays the source of all that dread: namely, Curtis’s deteriorating mental state. The vivid nightmares that set it off—cleverly indistinguishable from real life at first, then veering abruptly into madness—account for most of the standard scares. But these are quite concentrated near the beginning; just when their repeated intrusion into the real world is starting to get tiresome, Nichols switches it up, deriving suspense from other sources in Curtis’s waking life: an ominous doctor’s visit, some mild but alarming visual and auditory hallucinations, or a terrifically eerie visit with his schizophrenic mother, featuring one hell of a single-scene performance by Kathy Baker. Curtis’s nightmares continue, but they’re portrayed differently as they begin to feature the people he’s closest to; the one about Dewart is related in a chilling monologue, and when Curtis’s wife, Samantha, finally appears, Nichols shows only the dream’s opening act before cutting away, leaving the violence that follows to our imaginations.

These smart decisions wouldn’t add up to much, however, without a strong lead performance holding the story together. Michael Shannon, in the midst of a long and impressive career, has also emerged as Nichols’s muse, having appeared in all the director’s movies, and his role in Take Shelter remains one of the best uses anybody has made of his singular gifts. He convincingly captures Curtis’s many virtues—his work ethic, devotion to family and friends, thoughtful practicality, and sense of personal responsibility—and yet, as A.O. Scott writes, “[his] scarecrow frame and sharply angled features seem designed to repel sentimentality.” By his very presence, he creates a subtle, conflicted sort of tension, vividly conveying not just Curtis’s mounting instability and its potential for harm, but the fundamental decency that remains at his core. Playing regular old sinister, threatening derangement may not be easy, but it’s not that complicated; Shannon, in particular, could do it in his sleep. In Take Shelter, he does something much harder and more emotionally resonant; as Scott continues, Curtis “is hardly a wild-eyed prophet on the street corner, screaming that the end is near. His diffidence makes his desperation especially painful, and his increasingly strange behavior is made more unsettling by his generally calm demeanor. Mr. Shannon’s taciturn, haunted performance manages to be both heartbreaking and terrifying. You feel sorry for this guy, even as you want to run in the other direction.” [i]

It’s this element of pathos, more than anything else, that sets Take Shelter apart from other psychological horror movies. In most of these, the protagonist’s mental devolution would be scary and destructive for themselves and their family, but its cause would be a mystery, and they would spend the movie trying to figure out what supernatural force or M. Night Shyamalan-esque narrative puzzle is causing it. Curtis, on the other hand, is well aware of what’s probably happening to him, giving his fear and helplessness in the face of his delusions an undercurrent of sadness that makes them more realistic, and thus more effective. Nichols understands that for these scares to really stick with us, we need to genuinely care about the characters and relate to their pain. And stick with us they do, more forcefully (or, at least, in a different way) than what even the nastiest, most nihilistic horror flicks typically throw at us.

This is also the reason, I think, why Nichols chooses to give Take Shelter that naturalistic aesthetic, why he keeps the dialogue so grounded in everyday speech, why he doesn’t even jack up the conventional scares too far past believability. It’s important that the world of the movie looks just like our own, because the fears he’s working with are unnervingly familiar and close to home: losing one’s mind, certainly, but also the loss of family, home and security that follows. This is where the power of Jessica Chastain’s performance as Samantha really shines through; she makes the material and emotional stakes of Curtis’s affliction poignantly clear, but never lets her character revert to the entirely reactive victim she could easily have been. So many psychological horror movies try to do this, showing us the protagonist’s wonderful life before the encroaching madness strips it away. But it rarely has the emotional impact that it does here, because that good life is rarely so familiarly modest and so convincingly portrayed, and the protagonist’s loved ones are rarely such active participants in the fight against the darkness.  

This is how you make a horror movie that really matters. It’s not just that Nichols makes his protagonist’s ordeal more affecting than most on a personal level; as David Edelstein writes, “his feelers for the country’s bad vibes are supernaturally keen.” He recognizes the horror potential of “a time when the Book of Revelation has entered mainstream politics, when each year brings a new prediction of the exact date the world will end, when hurricanes and floods and earthquakes and heat waves and melting ice caps and industrial accidents and no jobs and Michele Bachmann’s crazy eyes are fixtures of our conscious and possibly unconscious lives.”[ii] Take Shelter came out ten years ago, and Michele Bachmann has mercifully receded from prominence, but it’s tough to celebrate when she’s been replaced by the forces of Trump, Cruz, and Hawley, and across the board, without exception, the topical fears that the movie explores have only gotten worse.

A horror movie turns out to be a grimly effective way to illuminate the darkest features of American society, and the range of these that Nichols is able to channel here, without the effort feeling forced, is remarkable. Some are plainly stated, and integral to the story; financial inequality, the obsessive binding of security to a certain type of employment, and the barbarity of the American healthcare system, are all clear factors in the danger that Curtis’s affliction poses to his family. Others are less clear-cut, but their presence is no less forcefully felt. The role of extreme weather in Curtis’s nightmares is a clear nod toward fears about the destructive forces of climate change. The movie also deals with overwrought individualism, toxic masculinity, and the American aversion to mental illness; even though Curtis is a sensitive guy who acknowledges his problem and seeks treatment, his sense of shame and tortured awkwardness as he does so, shows the insidiousness of these social pathologies. Most compellingly for me, the movie captures the uniquely American propensity for paranoia and conspiratorial thinking; it’s easy to imagine a family being similarly ruined by spiraling obsession with Judgment Day or QAnon or any number of other conspiracy theories.

David Simon, whose justly celebrated TV series The Wire was exploring many similar issues in a different way around the same time, had an incisive phrase that summed up his view of things: America as a horror show.[iii] Ten years after it came out, Take Shelter still illustrates that point as well as any movie I can think of, while still working remarkably well as a low-key, modestly scaled horror flick. Nichols scares us by showing the world as it is, not as it might be if upended by supernatural forces or horrors on the far outer reaches of possibility.

Or at least, that’s what he does until the mysterious ending, which throws everything into doubt. Some viewers may justifiably wonder why Nichols would abruptly jettison the realism that’s worked so well throughout the movie, but I rather liked it, and I have a guess as to what he’s up to. The impulse to end on a cliffhanger, on an oh-shit moment, is understandable, because this is a horror movie and horror movies don’t end with happy families relaxing on the beach. And I think there’s a thematic point to it as well, something about the way that Curtis’s affliction and the suffering it causes, or maybe just the broader social ills it represents, inevitably spread outwards and, one way or another, affect everybody in the society.

This is America, and it’s a horror show. And at the end of the day, except, perhaps, for a ruling few, no one is safe from the storm.

© Harrison Swan, 2021



[iii] A great video of him talking through it with Bill Moyers:

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Screen Shot 2020-06-03 at 11.01.20 AM

When we think of spy movies, our minds instinctively gravitate towards certain conventions: nifty gadgets, exotic locales, dangerously beautiful women, nefarious conspiracies—and, eventually, fights, shootouts and car chases that obliterate any possibility of secrecy or deniability. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course; those movies are popular for a reason, and I loved Skyfall and the Bourne trilogy as much as anybody. But that’s entertainment espionage, refracted through a mass-market Hollywood lens, and as fun as it often is, it’s not the only way to make a compelling spy movie. There have always been those that take a more subdued approach, aiming instead to immerse us in a shadowy, paranoid world where trust, certainty, and moral clarity are luxuries the characters can ill afford. Tomas Alfredson’s gripping 2011 thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is something like a perfect distillation of this understated aesthetic: relatively light on dialogue, heavy on atmosphere, chock-full of haunted faces, heavily weighted silences, anxious framing and drab, cheerless colors—and yet, all so masterfully done that it never crosses the line into inanity or self-parody.

That’s not surprising, though, given the director’s skill set and the venerable material he’s working from. Alfredson grew up in a Swedish filmmaking family, started out working for various TV stations, and eventually became (and apparently still is) the resident director for a nationally famous comedy group, with whom he made his first feature in 2004. His only other film before 2011 was the internationally acclaimed Let the Right One In (2008), a bloody, very spooky, weirdly sweet pre-teen vampire horror/romance that announced his talent for creating onscreen atmosphere as intoxicating as it is unsettling.

There are no vampires and very few children in Tinker Tailor, but it’s an ideal fit for Alfredson’s brooding style; teamed up again with the gifted cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, he delivers a master class in creating tension and excitement through restraint. The color scheme, as we’ve noted, is gloriously dreary, dominated by grays and browns, dull blues and greens, and sickly shades of red and orange. This serves to immerse us in the setting—the gloom of Britain in winter as well as the aesthetic awfulness of the 1970s—and to echo the inner life of our protagonist, George Smiley, and the rest of the characters, mostly aging spies who are all, to one degree or another, emotionally and morally worn down by the life of secrets and lies that they’ve committed to. Even a comparatively free-wheeling interlude with the younger field agent Ricki Tarr in Istanbul (the only part, if memory serves, where we see proper sunlight) is nonetheless similarly muted—even here, we’re still moving in the same devious world.


Which is not to say the movie isn’t visually stunning. Alfredson creates beautifully clean and precise images—it’s just that they’re composed to evoke anxiety and dread. On multiple occasions, we find ourselves looking from ground level at a figure in an upper-floor window, a time-honored way to induce a sense of being watched. Even more strikingly, during that Istanbul flashback, we see a whole scene of domestic conflict and abuse from Tarr’s point of view: through binoculars trained on the big windows of the hotel suite from a building across the street, which both heightens the feeling of surveillance and makes the Russian woman, Irina, all the more mysteriously alluring. Whenever possible, Alfredson shoots his actors with other objects (walls, doorways, furniture, trees) crowding them slightly in the frame, echoing their boxed-in, paranoid mindset. He favors static, carefully composed shots—appropriate, given the story’s subject matter and stately pacing—but he also makes judicious use of the ultra-subtle, ultra-slow zoom in, another textbook way to suggest encroaching danger. Indeed, all of the camera moves, even quite complex ones, are deliberately paced, never more conspicuous than they need to be. And the effect of all this is only heightened by skillful editing, which Alfredson and Dino Jonsäter provide, cutting between these various shots in a way that rarely draws attention to itself, but still squeezes maximum tension out of each scene.

This policy of restraint is consistent throughout the movie, even at overtly dramatic moments that tempt towards greater showmanship. As pensive as Tinker Tailor is compared to a Bond flick, it’s not without violence, and while Alfredson portrays it starkly, he tends to cut around it, opting to focus on the gruesome aftermath rather than the act itself and let our imagination fill in the rest. His conveys other major plot points in a similarly measured way, through precisely intoned lines of dialogue and subtle visual cues that play off of the understated style of the rest of the movie. One example comes towards the end, when we return once again to Jim Prideaux’s ill-fated mission in Budapest. The camera pushes in on a man we now suspect to be the Soviet spymaster Karla (his face still cleverly obscured by shop window lettering), and then on to the detail that finally confirms it: Smiley’s engraved lighter. The music indicates that this is significant, but so too does the way the camera moves: quickly and somewhat unsteadily, a motion that recalls ‘big reveal’ moments in older movies and also notably stands out in comparison to the subtle camerawork in the rest of the movie. Most spectacular of all, at least from a technical standpoint, is the scene where Smiley extracts a key piece of information from the Eastern Europe expert Toby Esterhase. Smiley essentially kidnaps him, a much more aggressive tactic than we’ve previously seen, and brings him to an airfield to threaten him with extradition back to the Eastern bloc. Alfredson and van Hoytema frame the two figures in a wide shot down the runway, using a seriously massive telephoto lens[i] that compresses the space to such a degree that the plane seems to be right on top of them from the moment it lands—a vivid illustration of what a terrifying prospect it represents for Toby.

Alfredson’s other secret weapon is exceptional sound design, which captures the setting in all its clackety analogue glory and also proves to be a potent dramatic tool. Sharp, sudden noises, like knocks and gunshots, ring out like thunderbolts amid the hush that usually predominates. Irina’s capture is deftly signaled by the ominous scraping of a sliding door, even before we see the Soviet agents behind it. A quick view of the captured Prideaux, bruised and forced to listen to disturbing, scream-like noises, tells us all we need to know about his interrogation by the KGB. On multiple occasions, Alfredson deploys the low, slow-building rumble of passing metro trains, cranking up the tension to an almost unbearable degree. A pop song on the radio adds a dash of humor to one scene, only to resurface later as a chilling signal to Smiley’s lieutenant, Peter Guillam, that they’re being watched.


Fittingly enough, all facets of Alfredson’s understated approach are on full display in the movie’s climactic scene, when Smiley and his motley crew spring a trap for Karla’s double agent. Tarr hijacks the Paris office at gunpoint to set the ruse in motion, and Mendel, their colleague from the Special Branch, notes the arrival of all four suspects at the ‘Circus’ (MI6) headquarters in ominous tones, but when the mole then reveals himself by rushing to alert his Soviet handler, there’s no fight, no chase, and no shootout. Instead, we’re with Smiley in the house that serves as their secret meeting place, waiting and listening. We hear the soft but unmistakable sounds of one car pulling up and footsteps entering the house, and then another. Then we get Smiley in a chair and a long, deliciously slow pan over to reveal the man he’s holding at gunpoint: Bill Haydon, his treachery finally confirmed. It’s a climax so uncommonly quiet that we might not even register it on a first viewing, but it’s wonderfully effective nonetheless, creating thrills entirely through narrative setup, sound design, and careful camerawork.

Alfredson’s skillfully restrained suspense would be fun to watch in any context. But it also happens to be perfectly suited to this classic story by the great scribe of the somber (you might say ‘anti-Bond’) school of spy fiction: John le Carré, who worked for the British intelligence services in the 1950s and 60s and has spent the decades since writing consistently excellent espionage novels, full of soulfully beleaguered characters; heartless, heavily bureaucratized agencies; and vaguely defined, morally murky conflicts. No layperson can know for sure how realistic this is, and yet, almost by default, it feels more honest than Bond-ian action and adventure; we know that super-spies aren’t real, but these subtler stories, especially when populated by memorable characters as le Carré’s are, carry an enthralling air of credibility. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, first published in 1974, is universally considered to be one of his best works, and it is indeed a masterpiece of the spy genre, with its richly imagined world of Cold War intrigue, its twisty, timeless narrative about the search for a double agent at the top of British intelligence, and the sneakily powerful emotional (and philosophical) impact that it ultimately carries.

And this movie is a prime example of smart adaptation; even before Alfredson works his stylistic magic, the screenplay, by the husband-and-wife team of Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor, has already done a lot of crucial legwork in translating the story to the screen. Which is no easy task; as dour and cynical as le Carré’s characters are, they tend to talk quite a lot, and the omniscient narrator often delves liberally into backstories and the intricacies of both international and office politics. His plotlines, meanwhile, are elaborate even by spy fiction standards (critics eagerly break out the great word ‘labyrinthine’ to describe them)—and few more so than the sprawling Tinker Tailor. O’Connor and Straughan wisely don’t attempt to include all of that, partly because it would be impossible in a feature-length movie, and partly because it’s already been done, inimitably, in a six-hour BBC miniseries from 1979, anchored by Sir Alec Guiness’s definitive performance as Smiley. Instead, they manage to streamline the plot considerably while maintaining its essential structure; apart from a couple of minor changes in setting (Prague becomes Budapest, Hong Kong becomes Istanbul), the major twists and turns of the Smiley’s hunt for the mole are pretty much faithfully replicated. And even more importantly, the writers are able to preserve, for lack of a better word, the soul of the novel: the idiosyncratic characterization and deep undercurrents of regret, longing and existential malaise. This is the main reason, I think, why the movie doesn’t play like the rushed highlight reel of a richer narrative, and why the story in general is so rewarding to revisit even after we know how it ends—it’s exciting, but also genuinely moving, grounded in recognizably human psychology.


To capture all of this in two short hours, O’Connor and Straughan craft exceptionally concise and expressive dialogue, but they’re also keenly of how much can be expressed without words. Consider the great, wordless scene where one of Mendel’s bees gets trapped in the car, and “the other characters flail and panic while Smiley calmly opens the window and lets it fly off—his approach to spy-catching in a single image.”[ii] Even the fairly lengthy opening credits contain a lot of narrative development, again without dialogue: a trip through the interior spaces of the Circus builds atmosphere, Control’s death advances the story, and the empty routines of Smiley’s life in forced retirement—including a trip to the optician, where he picks out this movie’s version of Guinness’s iconic, thick-rimmed glasses—develop character. A more complex example is Smiley’s serially unfaithful wife, Ann, a full supporting character in the book whom the screenwriters include only in fleeting moments, her face never fully revealed. Her identity as a character is lost, but her role in the plot is preserved, and it’s still clear what she represents for Smiley’s character: a symbol of his awkward, agonized relationship with the real world beyond the Circus, a key weakness for Karla to exploit, and an illusory but powerful ideal to keep fighting for. The screenplay is a model of this kind of quiet expressiveness, and with Alfredson firmly on the same page, the result is an oddly gripping sort of thriller, in which the dialogue is spare and the pacing is slow, but there’s always a lot happening—narratively, thematically, emotionally, or sometimes all three at once.

Alfredson is also blessed with a cast that’s remarkable even compared to other large, star-studded ensembles. John le Carré characters seem to be, for British actors, a bit like founding fathers or Civil Rights leaders for American actors—if one of those movies is in the works, everybody is going to be interested. Those assembled here are all seasoned veterans, able to deliver every line, even an ostensibly unremarkable one, for maximum effect. In a pivotal early exchange between Smiley and the government undersecretary Lacon, Simon McBurney ratchets up the sense of anticipation via deliciously loaded intonation of a simple phrase: “The thing is…” When the late, great John Hurt, with his magnificently craggy features and singular voice (aptly described by one journalist as “nicotine sieved through dirty, moonlit gravel”[iii]) tells Prideaux, “There’s a rotten apple, Jim; we have to find it…”, it adds tension and also hints at Control’s increasing obsession and paranoia. When Smiley takes his leave of the recently ousted analyst Connie Sachs, Kathy Burke’s poignant (offscreen) delivery of her final line (“If it’s bad, don’t come back. I want to remember you all as you were…”) does a great deal to capture the emotional stakes of the investigation and the history these characters share. It would be tedious to run through every example, but suffice it to say that all the main actors have their share of similarly choice moments. And it’s not just about line delivery; they know how to make the most of every bit of screen time, speaking or otherwise, so we get a clear (if not always especially deep) sense of who all the principal supporting characters are. Which is especially impressive when you think back on it and realize that in a movie running barely over 2 hours, most of them have only a few scenes to really work with.


The key to it all, of course, is Smiley himself, masterfully portrayed by Gary Oldman, a certifiably great actor who was nevertheless not the most obvious choice for the role; after a career of being “often asked to play kinetic, frenetic characters,” he has said, he was “thrilled to be asked to play someone still.”[iv] The manic energy that defines Oldman’s earlier work is nowhere to be seen in the owlish Smiley, a thoroughly unremarkable, even outwardly pathetic figure memorably described by le Carré as “one of London’s meek who do not inherit the earth.” Such blandness is his nature, and Oldman makes it feel authentic, but he also conveys how Smiley has learned to use it to his advantage—that beneath the nondescript exterior lies a man with a penetrating intelligence and a scrupulous but potent capacity for ruthlessness, well aware of the value of being underestimated. Oldman delivers, in one critic’s words “a fascinatingly gripping performance that doesn’t so much command the screen, dominating it with shouts and displays of obvious technique, as take it over incrementally, an occupation that echoes Smiley’s steady incursion into the mole’s lair.”[v]

This dovetails perfectly with Alfredson’s restrained style, which is also about creating suspense with as little overt flair as possible; there’s always a certain intensity about Oldman’s Smiley, even when he’s technically doing very little. When he doesn’t speak at all for the first 18 minutes, it’s something of a gimmick, but we’re still learning a lot about the character: how keenly observant he is, the deference shown to him by colleagues, how carefully considered every word and action is—so that when he finally does speak, responding to Lacon’s request to look into Tarr’s theory, we’re on tenterhooks, even though all he’s saying is that he’s retired. But then Lacon mentions that Control also believed in the Soviet mole, and Oldman signals a clear shift as Smiley’s mind begins to whir, rapidly assessing his next move: Okay, this could be real, the first thing to know is how Lacon reacted…and thus his first question: “What did you say to him?” And from that moment on, he’s fully locked in, hunting for the answer in his own discreetly effective way—meticulously investigating every lead, making deft use of his colleagues and their skills, steadily accruing the only weapons that count in this world: information, and the leverage that comes with it.

The question remains, though; why does this movie stick with us? Smiley is ultimately an easy character to root for, a master of his craft and a figure of some pathos, but that alone doesn’t quite explain how this story continues to resonate so deeply. On the surface, it never goes beyond its brief as a suspenseful, unusually affecting spy thriller. And while the setting and context feel more and more like relics of the distant, dusty past with each passing year, it’s not without contemporary relevance; as Andrew O’Hehir puts it, “I don’t think John le Carré or much of anyone else laments the demise of Soviet communism, and all the spies of the Circus and the CIA and whatever the KGB now calls itself have kept right on going without it. But the question of whether Western democracy has recovered from its Cold War hangover, from its addiction to secrets and spying and the erosion of both rights and liberties, certainly remains topical.”[vi]


More importantly, however, the story works because it engages poignantly, if mostly indirectly, with facets of the human experience that most everyone can relate to on some level. It delves into questions about loyalty and identity; at the end, after Haydon is exposed as the mole, he tells Smiley that his choice wasn’t based on some rational assessment of which side is better, that it was just as much an “aesthetic” decision—and in turning against a West that has “become so very ugly,” he seems to see some reclamation of agency. Smiley is no fanatical Western ideologue, but the one and only time he raises his voice is in response to that idea, countering that in the end, Haydon is just another tool for Karla being used in service of the same ugly struggle that has brought out so much nastiness in both sides. The Second World War is referred to only briefly, but the memory of it lingers heavily over the movie, as the characters now find themselves living off the past (like Connie) or trying in vain to recapture it (like Bill and the others). As nostalgic as he may be, Smiley knows that the moral clarity of that conflict is never coming back. Now it’s all various shades of gray; both sides are equally rapacious, domineering, and ruthless in the end, so he serves the one he can call home, however flawed it may be. It’s this same sentiment that impels him to search for the mole in the first place. Lacon muses, “Damn it, George; it’s your generation, your legacy…” and Smiley still wants that to mean something—out of loyalty to the country he was born to, and even more so to the people he’s fought with.

This gets at another reason why the complex machinations of this rarefied world feel so emotionally relevant. For all the rational analysis and deductive reasoning that the central conflict entails, it’s driven just as much by interpersonal factors that we can all understand: friendship, love, ambition, rivalry, and all the other dimensions of human interconnectedness. At the end, it becomes clear that on some level, Prideaux knew Haydon was the mole all along; a visit he paid Haydon before the Budapest mission was an unspoken warning, and eventually leads to a clue that’s crucial to Smiley’s investigation. Meanwhile, the broader chess match between Smiley and Karla feels more personal than ideological, their moves heavily influenced by what they revealed to each other in a single brief meeting decades earlier.


On a similar note, the movie is also, in an elusive but profound way, about the pull of the past—how we can never really escape it, how it’s constantly influencing our present selves. The investigation takes place along a certain timeline, but as is often the case in le Carré’s stories, most intelligence gathering involves reaching back into the past—reviewing documents, questioning witnesses, revisiting memories. In the book, Smiley’s capacity for reminiscence is described as approaching an altered state of consciousness, sinking so deeply into his recollections that he nearly loses all sense of time and place—a valuable skill to have when considering which of your close associates has actually been a traitor for years. In this story, as in the real world, finding the answer isn’t just about gathering evidence; it’s also about confronting history, making a full accounting of actions taken, secrets kept, and lies told. And as such, I think Smiley’s hunt for the mole is also about the lies we tell ourselves—the way we let emotion shape memory, rationalizing and papering over the parts we don’t want to know or can’t face, in service of what we want the truth to be. Along with the machinations of Karla and his own erstwhile colleagues, this is what Smiley overcomes to find the truth, to see his world as it truly is—and it makes him, in his own watchful way, heroic, because we know from our own lives what a fraught prospect that is.

Amid all the subtle and overt changes necessary to compress that story into two hours, Alfredson, Oldman, and everyone else involved manage to preserve that crucial element air of emotional honesty, making Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy a top-notch adaptation and a masterwork of paranoid spy cinema. 

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© Harrison Swan, 2020

[i] 2000 mm, to be exact! (For reference, most shots in most movies are filmed on lenses ranging from 24 mm to 100 mm.) A quick explainer, if you’re interested:






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.)


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.


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]


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.


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.


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.


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. 

Screen shot 2019-05-02 at 5.20.17 PMScreen shot 2019-05-02 at 5.22.57 PM

© 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.