Matt Fowler (Tom Wilkinson) is a doctor in Maine whose son Frank (Nick Stahl) is home for the summer. While home, he falls for a single mother Natalie (Marisa Tomei). While the two have a lurid affair, the parents don’t approve, especially mom Ruth (Sissy Spacek). But soon a tragedy ensues that will test each of their own spirit and breaking points. The movie has a very calm and unperturbed environment to its story telling devices and never gives the feel of a thriller because it stays grounded down into reality. There’s a feeling of unrest during the film, a feeling almost like a bubble that could be burst in any moment during the story.
We’re never really sure what it is we’re waiting for, but we’re always sure something is going to happen. Todd Field is an excellent director starting off the first few minutes with a contradictory serene sequence of the couple Frank and Natalie romping in a field and engrossing themselves in their love affair almost as an envisage sequence. Inevitably, the movie changes moods and tends to become darker and murky, often symbolizing the characters situations. There’s a realistic nature during the film often causing the audience to wonder if the opening scenes are in fact real or just a dream that the characters dare to dream. We’re never truly sure and it’s never verified; maybe it was a sequence fantasized by the parents at one point.
The story relies on downplaying the drama to the lowest common denominator and by doing so it becomes all the more uneasy and unsettling. Some critics dismissed this film as a simple Oscar tailored film, but this is oh so much more, and there’s so much beneath the surface that deserves a second look. Tom Wilkinson is truly excellent in this film, displaying true acting skill as Frank’s father who tends to live through his son’s lurid affair even though he knows it a potentially dangerous one. He sees what’s happening but often smirks and turns a cheek never truly giving him a warning. He rarely ever steps in to stop his son from doing what he does nor does he give him advice and soon learns to regret it. Wilkinson resonates his role much more downplaying his character to a great extent becoming very memorable. He often whispers or mutters his lines increasing hs characters authenticity as an average man.
Sissy Spacek gives a great performance as well (nominated for best actress). She’s great as the silent mother of the character Frank who often holds grudges and resentment towards her son and never really talks to him much. Spacek also downplays her role during the film playing off Wilkinson very well. The two have great chemistry together and play off each others vulnerability and flaws. The best scene in the film is when they finally decide to let their resentments loose and argue non-stop before the audience with much mixed emotions of rage, anger, and sadness. Much of the film’s unsettling nature is comprised of sheer silence which is often the most dangerous element of any film. The silence of the scenery in Maine, the silence of Tomei’s characters abusive ex-husband, the silence in Wilkinson’s character during his torment, and the silence and calm nature of every character in the film presenting a sentiment of glass.
We’re expecting it to shatter at any moment, but we’re never truly sure when that moment will be. What increases the authenticity and uneasy atmosphere of the film is that death during the movie is effective, powerful, and ultimately real. When someone in the film dies, it lingers on the audiences mind and becomes heart-wrenching. Death is not romantic in this film nor is it colorful which helps the film resonate within audiences mind all the more effectively. Both Marisa Tomei and Nick Stahl are really good in the movie and Tomei is a truly annoying character as is evident from the beginning, instantly pigeon-holing her character from beginning to end. It’s never truly asserted, but it seems as if the last thirty minutes of the movie is a sort of fantasy situation in which many families would resolve the type of tragedy shown in this, but it is unbelievably realistic and extremely brutal and enters into a haunting last scene that closes the film.