When Todd Field's debut feature, "In the Bedroom," premiered at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, it was heralded as an instant American classic. Based on Andre Debus' 1979 short story "Killings," this tale of grief-stricken parents (Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson), who resolve to kill the murderer (William Mapother) of their only son (Nick Stahl) when they realize the man will be charged at most with accidental manslaughter, owes a great deal to Ingmar Bergman's "The Virgin Spring" and Wes Craven's grindhouse riff "The Last House on the Left." It is a film of quiet anguish, one that allows Spacek and Wilkinson to fully inhabit their devastated characters as they try to pick up the pieces. The constant presence of their child's killer, who's out on bail and hardly keeping a low profile around their small town, ultimately becomes too much to bear. Instead of tearing each other apart with long-simmering resentments, they decide to eliminate the source of their distress.
The key to the film's effectiveness is its unhurried pace. Field is very much an actor's director, but this doesn't mean he indulges his talented cast's every emotive whim. The grieving process is long and unpredictable, and it's not just law enforcement's failure to bring their boy's killer to justice that's eating away at the parents. It's the "what ifs" of child-rearing, and the roads not taken that put them at each other's throats and threaten to drive them apart.
"In the Bedroom" is a meticulously crafted drama that earns every single one of its 131 minutes. In terms of theatrical distribution, it's a film that needs a true believer determined to back its director's vision every step of the way. So when Miramax's Harvey Weinstein, who was notorious for re-cutting his acquisitions to heighten their commercial and awards appeal (and who will likely spend the rest of his life in prison after being convicted on two counts of sexual assault), won the Sundance bidding war to release Field's movie, the filmmaker was distraught. He needed someone with juice in his corner. So he called up one of the biggest movie stars on the planet for emergency advice.
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As related in a recently published Michael Schulman profile for The New Yorker, Field, who is back in the awards derby for the first time in over a decade with "Tár," found himself "weeping in the bathroom" upon learning that Miramax had bought his film. He knew Weinstein's "Harvey Scissorhands" reputation, and couldn't bear to see his finely wrought drama compromised by a vulgarian who cared only about winning Oscars and the box office. How would he push back? Could he push back?
Field hopped on the phone with his buddy Tom Cruise, with whom he'd acted in Stanley Kubrick's final movie "Eyes Wide Shut." He told the star, "Something terrible has happened," and explained his situation. The showbiz-savvy Cruise told him exactly what to do. Per Field:
"He basically said, 'This is how you're going to play it. It's going to take you six months, and you'll beat him, but you have to do exactly what I'm going to tell you to do, step by step.'"
The strategy was to not resist at all. Let Weinstein go crazy in the editing room. When the film tested poorly, remind Harvey of the glowing reviews out of Sundance, and suggest that he had an Academy Awards juggernaut from the jump. Field followed the plan to the letter, and won big.
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Made for $1.7 million, "In the Bedroom" went on to gross $36 million at the U.S. box office. It was a hugely profitable release for Miramax and a major contender throughout awards season. After snagging a number of prestigious critic awards, the film earned five Academy Awards nominations, all in major categories (Picture, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actress, and Adapted Screenplay). The movie went home empty-handed, but it was an underdog coming into the ceremony (had the Academy not snubbed Denzel Washington for "Malcolm X" in 1993, Wilkinson would've won in a walk).
Ironically, Field had a rough go with his second feature, "Little Children," at the filmmaker-friendly New Line Cinema. Despite enthusiastic reviews, the studio never expanded the spiky domestic drama beyond 115 screens in the United States. Though it still managed to rack up three Oscar nominations (for Actress, Supporting Actor, and Adapted Screenplay), very few people outside of major media markets knew it existed.
Field's third feature, "Tár," will meet a much more favorable Oscar fate this year. Cate Blanchett's portrayal of a problematically driven classical composer/conductor is considered the prohibitive favorite for Best Actress. Though the film hasn't exactly set the box office on fire, it has inspired a fiery discourse about how to engage with brilliant artists who happen to be abusive jerks in their private lives. It's a major work from a great filmmaker, and we probably owe its existence as it is today to Tom Cruise.
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