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Riveting performances transform "In the Bedroom" from a run-of-the-mill revenge tale to a winning proposition.

And the Oscar Goes To ...

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One of the most anticipated independent releases of the year, the buzz about "In The Bedroom" has been growing since its winning ways at Sundance. Adding to the drama's growing cachet: recent best actor and actress designations by the New York Film Critics Circle as well as best picture and actress honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Can a slew of Oscar nominations be far off?

This remarkable feature film debut by actor-turned-director Todd Field slyly pulls us into a wrenching domestic drama that plays out over one brief but fateful summer. Vividly capturing the quiet beauty of his native Maine, Field enchants us with lovely but rugged coastal scenery and seemingly happy couples. But as he draws us into the laughter and camaraderie at a child's birthday cookout, we begin to pick up tiny hints and vibes that there's trouble brewing in this idyllic-looking community.

Promising architecture student Frank Fowler (Nick Stahl) is home for the summer and working as a lobsterman for the season. Mature for his late teens, Frank spends his free time with Natalie (Marisa Tomei), who's a good decade older than he and the mother of two young boys.

Naturally, their relationship bothers Frank's music-teacher mother, Ruth (Sissy Spacek). However, her biggest concern isn't the disparity in their ages. She's worried about Natalie's possessive estranged husband, Richard (William Mapother), who acts like a bullying redneck though his family owns the largest business in town.

Frank's father, Matt (Tom Wilkinson), on the other hand, urges his wife to stay out of their son's business. He maintains that stance even after Richard beats up his son and Frank refuses to file assault charges.

It's not surprising that tragedy soon follows. Since that first beauty shot of Maine, Field quietly yet deliberately has been laying the groundwork for the pain and sorrow to come. When it does, the juxtaposition of what we see and what we know is jarring.

The final two-thirds of "In the Bedroom" offers a devastating look at how Matt and Ruth deal with their own grief, each other's grief, and the white-hot rage growing within them. Like mesmerized voyeurs, we watch as Matt and Ruth come to another fateful decision when it becomes clear that the legal system won't deal quickly or fairly with the person responsible.

As Matt and Ruth struggle with personal demons, past hurts and new recriminations, Field never stumbles. Every shot, every scene, everything he chooses to show on the screen serves a purpose, even if we in the audience don't catch on immediately. Meticulous and deliberate, Field is also quite lyrical, whether depicting the day-to-day routine in the small Maine town or the quiet, controlling fear Richard has conditioned in Natalie.

Field, with the help of co-writer Robert Festinger, almost flawlessly constructs the devastating but inevitable climax, allowing the narrative to gather momentum as we become unwilling witnesses to the crime. But then Field does the opposite of what we have been bracing for. As with two earlier bouts of violence, Field elects not to show the violent crime. By refusing, Field makes it all the more chilling and manages to dignify the act, effectively thwarting any glib comparisons between his sensitive exploration of revenge and the urban vigilantism on graphic display in the "Death Wish" franchise.

Though truthfully, such comparisons could be argued were it not for the astonishing performances by Field's cast. Depicting WASP angst on the screen is certainly not groundbreaking, but Spacek and Wilkinson make it appear that way. Especially Spacek, who gets under the skin of the tightly coiled and controlled Ruth as if her life depended on it. On par with her Oscar-winning performance in "Coal Miner's Daughter," Spacek gives us a Ruth so painfully genuine we ache for her. Wilkinson, best known for "The Full Monty," also turns in a breakthrough performance as the laid-back doctor who suppresses his feelings until the last moment possible. As for Tomei, her Oscar for "My Cousin Vinny" notwithstanding, this is easily her best work.

Tremendously effective on several levels, "In the Bedroom" is not without a few missteps and unnecessary manipulations. And some may find Field's deliberate pacing and soul-searching dialogue the cinematic equivalent of gazing at one's navel. But for those willing to follow Field's lead, "In the Bedroom's" impact and remarkable performances will be impossible to forget.

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