“It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts, than to put on the cloak of non-violence to cover impotence.” Gandi
Revenge has taken a back seat in our swelling world of 6 billion people. It is not easy for humans to remember “an eye for an eye” when so many people look upon actions with the scrutiny of a teacher. Author Andre Dubus swells the reader’s emotions and sympathies in his opening line of the short story “Killings” when he says “On the August morning when Matt Fowler buried his youngest son.” In a father’s grief, readers take solace in unabashed anger, violence, and retribution. The story, later adapted to the film “In the Bedroom”, shows that an audience will favor violence as a righteous revenge. By contrasting how the author of the story and the director of the film expose a family’s loss, I will demonstrate that beyond what we see or consume, the idea of senseless loss can be masked many ways and rebuking one’s anger will always in violence upon violence. An eye for an eye. The film takes the initiative to recreate the back story of Frank Fowler’s love affair with danger and position Frank as a victim. The film feels the need to show what will be lost while the story simply suffocates us with the actual loss.
Professor Penelope Harvey of the London School of Economics has compared sex and violence as similar acts:
“Anthropological studies of sexuality and violence apparently hold out the promise of delving into two central western fantasies – the eroticization of domination and the eroticization of “the (dominated) Other’. To read and to write about sexuality and violence in other cultures might in itself be an activity that affords pleasure.
“Killings” places the reader inside the mind of father Matt Fowler and we are consumed with one man’s hatred of his son’s killer. The book achieves this by ending the story with an impotent father who cannot make love to his wife to take the mind off the fact that his son will never make love again.
Dubus writes in “Killings”:
“She was holding him, wanting him, and he wished he could make love with her but he could not. He saw Frank and Mary Ann making love in her bed, their eyes closed, their bodies brown and smelling of the sea: the other girl was faceless.”
Clearly the book would like to end with the loss of pleasure and the impotence of killing as not a source of pleasure for bereaved parents. The film on the other hand continues its denouement and tries to show a life worth living for the parents. The specific action of Ruth, Frank’s mother, grading papers and making important decisions in the bedroom help the film show that two adults will be able to work through this tragedy together if they collaborate with body and mind in the confines of their safe bedroom.
The story leaves a lot unsaid about “the bedroom” but the film takes liberties and there is a very poignant scene in which Frank interrupts his parents while they are disrobed in their bedroom. By panning the camera to the door of the bedroom, the director is alluding to an intrusion of love and privacy but because it is the beloved child this inclusion of progeny makes this a warm scene. It is brilliantly contrasted with the final scenes of the film in which the parents and befuddled while alone in the bedroom and seem pleading for an intrusion from their loving son.
The film also takes pains to establish the character Dicky Shrout, the murderer, as member of a family. The film has scenes where we see Dicky interacting with the children that he has fathered with Mary Ellen. The book has no mention of children and the film’s ploy is to make Dicky regarded as someone’s father and someone’s child to invoke confused sympathy. Dicky is less detailed and more of an evil force in the book. His name is more often Richard than the familiar Dicky used in the film.
The real cinematic breakthrough in the film is its renaming of the film to “In the Bedroom”. Dubus uses that line once and it is taken out of its original syntax for the use of the film. Matt asks his victim, seconds after he cocks his pistol against Richard’s head, where his suitcase is. “In the bedroom closet” is the reply. This is the first time we see the private space of Richard Shrout. The invasion of his bedroom is something we know Matt Fowler needs for total revenge. As a viewer you almost expect Matt to murder Richard in his own bedroom. The director uses a low angle shot to film Richard in this bedroom scene as if the floor of his own bedroom was commanding Matt to pull the trigger and leave Richard’s dead body on the floor like he did to his son.
Yet, the grandiosity of the revenge murder is well staged in the film through the use of the forest as a killing field. The film’s use of outdoor space is only a chiaroscuro premonition to the second half of the film in which we are surrounded by white lights, strong colors in a well lit interior living room which Matt and Ruth Fowler have to wallow in their revenge murder. The apoplectic tension between the husband and wife is Hollywood’s insertion of the moral theme that murder upon murder does not cure the ailing heart. Only the viewer gets full catharsis because it is the viewer that experiences the extreme close up shot of the bullet in Frank’s head and concurrently sees Richard Shrout’s dead body shot to pieces by dad Matt Fowler. The deliverance of death in cinema is something more powerfully transcendental than seeing it in your own head.
The conveyance of loss is the hardest bridge to build between the story and the film. The short story contains photos (or the fear that viewing a photo from the past will help Matt stop his killing rage) and these serve as a litany of words that the film tries to recreate through fictionalized back story. The pictures, littered throughout the story, truly act as thousands of words that became hundreds of dialogues in the first hour of “In the Bedroom”.
The choice to use long black inter-cuts between the scenes of mother and father grieving are to implore you to picture the time before when their lives were not full of dreams that live in the past. The blackness is there for film viewers to see the backs of your own eyes. In the book this is never afforded to the reader and while the main characters of mom and dad grieve with their eyes glued wide open, the film lulls you into a sleeplike dying with the final third of the film.
The theme that everything comes full circle is exemplified in
a fascinating shot of the spinning cog that opens a bridge which comes at minute 66 of a 132 minute film. It symbolizes the break in a parents mind. The image is a long shot of Matt’s SUV coming down the road towards the bridge. Then the flashing barriers come down in front of the car. Then we see a long shot of the bridge over the river. The director then includes a close up of the two pronged medal center fastener for the bridge’s swivel. There is metal pole brought into the close up shot and we see it aimed for one of the holes in the two slots available. We then carry that close up shot to a close up shot of Ruth dreaming in the backseat of the SUV with her head on a pillow on the back window. In the short story, Ruth is only experienced in the bedroom or the living room. In the film, her pre-loss activities was one that encompassed the great big world that she lived in (forests, high schools, opera, books, cooking), yet the second half of the film literally puts Ruth to sleep after the permanence of her loss sets in.
The return to the circling opening of the bridge (in minute 108 of the film) is contrasted with a shot of Matt’s thoughts just after he killed Richard. He has to bow down to his thoughts and live with himself now. The bridge even makes Willis, Matt’s friend, late for work – everyone is at the mercy of the grand plan’s schedule.
Because of the structure of the book, the reader is not immediately privy to who is going to be killed. We know that the grand plan for Matt is to achieve vengeance for his murdered son. When Richard says “He was sleeping with my wife” it has a double impact. In the story, the reader feels a twinge of empathy for the condemned Richard. He was cheated on and his killing of Frank was HIS revenge. But in the film, we feel nothing but hatred when Richard says “He was sleeping with my wife, Dr. Fowler” and we embody the rage he is feeling as he shoves the muzzle of his gun into the back of Richard’s neck. This occurs because we see Richard’s face early and often in the film. He is the source of our anger and violence. In the short story, Richard is given the chance of being in the right and Dr. Fowler could be the one with misguided violence.
Accordingly, the movie bears the loss of understanding for the characters Ruth and Matt – we are not grieving parents. When the short story tells us about infidelity, we accept the loss of a marriage through the gaining of a love union – even though it is between two married adults. But in the film version, Ruth’s tirade against Matt for an unfounded lust over Mary Ellen so he could fuck her through his son’s penis and in his fantasies is too much. In the story, we see Ruth as silent and obedient to a male martial law that is being enforced by her husband. But in the film, the female goading of a false male confidence that justifies revenge killing is stoked by Ruth’s passion and the solid weight that audiences give the character acted by Sissy Spacek.
The film takes the time to make us love the characters in order to feel their loss. The story begins with unfounded hatred toward loss itself and the permanence of it. By creating a story, the filmmakers have wrapped a bow around what could have been and what really is. The short story conversely takes us into an empty place that is after the murder and consequently void of fulfillment. Both film and story leave room for a viewer’s lament on revenge killings satiation of an emptied soul.
Field, Todd, In the Bedroom, Buena Vista Pictures, 2001.
Harrison, Stephanie, Adaptations from Short Story to Big Screen,” Three Rivers Press, 2005, Print. Page 610
Harvey, Penelope, Sex and Violence: Issues in Representation and Experience, New York, 1994, Penguin, Print, page 36