Matt and Ruth Fowler (Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek) are a typical middle-aged, middle-class New England couple. He's a small-town physician. She's a music teacher. They disapprove of their college-aged son's relationship with an older, separated mother of two, but Frank (Nick Stahl) assures them that his romance with Natalie (Marisa Tomei) is just “a summer thing,” and they host a backyard barbecue in honor of her young son's birthday.
But when Frank comes home with cuts and bruises on his face from Natalie's ex, Richard (William Mapother), Matt and especially Ruth urge him to end the relationship--the sooner the better. Little do they know that Frank has quietly been considering staying in the seaside town for another year, continuing his summer job of setting lobster traps and spending more time with Natalie rather than pursuing his dream to become an architect.
The point becomes moot about two reels into the film, when a confrontation between Frank and Richard escalates to fatal proportions. Frank is shot dead in Natalie's dining room, and Matt and Ruth have only each other to rely on in their time of grief.
The problem is, they can't--rely on each other, that is. Rather than bringing them together, the event rips them apart. A couple who delights in each other's company at the beginning of the film, behaving in much the same manner as their son and his new beau, have found even small-talk to be painful. Their conflict climaxes with an exhausting altercation in which they hurl insults at each other that no one should have to hear.
To make matters worse, Richard is released on bail--Natalie didn't actually witness the murder, and he claims there was a struggle--so Ruth runs into him on more than one occasion while going about her business around their small town. And the prosecutors say it'll be another 18 months before the case even goes to trial. Determined to save his marriage, Matt commits an act as violent as the one that tore them apart.
First-time feature helmer Todd Field (an actor who portrayed crooner Nick Nightingale in Stanley Kubrick's last film “Eyes Wide Shut”) knows how to create real drama. Rather than milking the violent episodes or obvious Oscar moments, such as Matt's breaking the news of their son's death to his wife, these scenes take place off-screen. Instead, it's the lunch dates that Matt used to share with Frank and Ruth's sudden interest in trashy television that Field focuses on, showing that real drama is found in life's everyday activities (although the gratuitous fades to black between these episodes do get a bit tiresome).
Because his film centers so intimately around the character's inner lives, Field often uses the camera to indicate what they are feeling. During the reception after Frank's funeral, Matt is unable to concentrate on his guests, viewing them instead through glass panes or off of reflective surfaces. When his attorney delivers the bad news about the length of time before the trial, his mind wanders, closing in on the lawyer's noisy moving lips and jingling pocket change rather than the words coming out of his mouth.
The performances here are stellar across the board. Wilkinson and Spacek deserve the Special Jury Prize they shared at the Sundance Film Festival, where the film premiered, and the recognition is no doubt a precursor to the upcoming awards season. Stahl and Tomei likewise share real chemistry, and the beautiful Tomei deserves special kudos for accepting casting as an “older woman.” The only false note is Mapother, whose character feels a bit affected next to the genuine portrayals by his co-stars. Starring Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek, Nick Stahl, Marisa Tomei and William Mapother. Directed by Todd Field. Written by Rob Festinger and Todd Field. Produced by Graham Leader, Ross Katz and Todd Field. A Miramax release. Drama. Rated R for some violence and language. Running time: 134 min.