(director/writer: Todd Field; screenwriters: Rob Festinger/based on a story by Andre Dubus; cinematographer: Antonio Calvache; editor: Frank Reynolds; music: Thomas Newman; cast: Sissy Spacek (Ruth Fowler), Tom Wilkinson (Dr. Matt Fowler), Nick Stahl (Frank Fowler), William Mapother (Richard Strout), William Wise (Willis Grinnel), Celia Weston (Katie Grinnel), Marisa Tomei (Natalie Strout), W. Clapham Murray(Carl), Frank T. Wells (Henry), Terry A. Burgess (Bill Davis, D.A.), Jonathan Walsh (Priest); Runtime: 138; Miramax; 2001)

“It has a genuine feel and empathy for the Maine landscape and its natives.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Todd Field, previously an actor (the jazz piano player in Eyes Wide Shut), writes and directs his first feature film. It is a well-crafted, superbly acted, serious suspense drama, that is adapted from the chilling short story by the late Andre Dubus. The film’s most pressing fault is that it is almost humorless and takes so long for its bleak story to be told. Otherwise, this chamber piece is about as good as it gets when it comes to bringing to life real people and studying them with depth. The film, also, makes for great conversation afterwards, which might be its best feature.

The film’s title refers to a part of a lobster cage, but it could also be taken from the secrets of a marriage in the bedroom that are not of a sexual nature — that comes out when the couple’s routine life is upset and also when the couple is reunited by their devious plan for revenge.

Matt (Tom Wilkinson) and Ruth (Sissy Spacek) live simply but comfortably in a white wood-frame house in Camden, Maine, where he’s a family doctor and she is the music teacher at the high school. They are a couple in their early 50s who seem pleased with their routine life. They do things such as hold a Fourth of July barbecue in their backyard with close friends, participate in a Labor Day chorale concert about Eastern European folk music, and attend Little League games together. Matt has a regular on-going poker game with his same close friends, and enjoys his lobster-fishing excursions with his gentle, college student, 21-year-old, only son Frank (Nick Stahl). The kid is the shining apple in his overbearing mother’ and nice-guy father’ eyes. Matt is a regular radio listener to the Red Sox games, which gives him comfort that life is not changing so much that he still can’t enjoy the regularity of baseball. Everything we first see of how Matt and Ruth live, seems to fit our concept of the simple pastoral life in a New England small-town. The only economic hardship to life in this serene middle-class setting, is pictured in a few shots of assembly-line workers at the harborside fish cannery.

What upsets Ruth greatly is that Frank is going out with the not-yet-divorced Natalie Strout (Marisa Tomei), an attractive working-class woman. Natalie is a married woman in her early thirties, who has two small boys that Frank already looks upon as if he were their stepfather. Ruth tries to get Matt to take her side and get Frank to stop the relationship, but he vicariously identifies with his son scoring at his age a hot number like Natalie and doesn’t think the relationship will grow further than being a summer thing. Natalie comes with some heavy baggage, she has a violent husband, Richard (William Mapother, Tom Cruises’ cousin), who has some real psychological problems. She has been separated from him and wants a divorce, but he won’t give her up without a fight. Richard returns from his summer absence on July 4th and doesn’t take kindly to Frank bedding-down with his wife, and later on comes by to give the college boy some angry stares. Once he catches him at home with his wife and punches him out, resulting in stitches over his eye. Matt is reluctant to call the police as his wife suggests, and counsels that time will heal the problem. Frank believes his kid is only having a harmless fling, sowing his oats, before heading back to college. But he doesn’t realize how passionately his son feels for the sexy woman, as Frank is thinking about taking a year off from school to work with Henry as a lobster fisherman just to be with Natalie. Everyone in this family is secretive and fails to communicate with the other, though everything they do outwardly seems to indicate that this a house where it is encouraged to speak freely.

Warning: spoiler in the next paragraph.

In this observant film, passion and crime go together like lobsters and butter. Richard is so enraged at his loss, that he ends up killing the innocent Frank when he finds him over Natalie’s house. The melodrama then turns to seeing how flawed the justice system is, that in this open-and-shut case of first-degree murder the justice system can only charge Richard with manslaughter because of a technicality in the eyewitness testimony. This only carries a light sentence of between 5 to 15 years, and on top of that Richard is released on bail. These occurrences make Ruth inconsolable and Matt begin to think of revenge.

Ruth and Matt find it hard to get back to their routine lives, and no one can say anything that has much meaning to them. That includes the wishy-washy district attorney, the easy-going parish priest and his close poker playing friends. One of the card players, Carl, recites a William Blake poem from his Songs of Innocence and Experience to help explain things, while his closest friend Willis and his wife Katie invites the couple to his cabin retreat to see if life can go on for them like before as they gather to talk and eat and see if he and his wife can give them emotional support. But no one can. The couple is wrapped up in their loss, their guilt, their need for revenge, the feelings of futility over the justice system, and their heavy grief. The spark has gone out of their life, and the couple try to avoid each other by keeping busy. But nothing they do takes their mind off their loss. It especially hurts to see glimpses of Richard from time to time, strolling around the town like he owns it and realizing that his family money will be used to get him the lightest possible sentence. His family owns the biggest business in town–the cannery. To make Ruth and Matt even more enraged, his lawyer is arguing that it was just an accident. This is buttressed at the hearing, as Natalie’s original testimony is torn to shreds because she technically didn’t see the shooting. You can’t help but feel the pain the parents are going through, as the only thing you wonder about is how they will overcome this alarmingly quiet anger that has come over them. The doctor keeps it locked up inside himself, while Ruth is in an angry daze as she locks herself inside the house and fumes at her inability to take action as she stares blankly at the daily TV programs she tunes into.

Warning: spoiler in the next paragraph.

It’s a film that takes its time to study the characters, and gives the actors plenty of time to take in the details of the character they play and for the main characters to understand how this tragic event has taken away their hopes for the future. There can be no return to normalcy for this couple, who in their despair have even turned on each other. But they resolve things for themselves by making a tacit agreement between them on how to settle this matter to give them closure. Matt appears at Richard’s bar workplace when it closes late at night and forces him at gunpoint to drive his own car to an isolated spot in the woods. It is the first step in his plan for revenge that involves making it look like Richard has skipped bail and ran off. When they reach the chosen spot in the woods, step 2 of the plan is carried out. Matt calmly kills him and buries him with his suitcases. He quickly returns home at the break of dawn like he was returning from a poker game with the boys; the seacoast town looks its prettiest (like it did when the pic opened) and the couple seemingly has found a way to get back to their routines by taking matters into their own hands. It is, of course, a false calm that they have bargained for.

It’s a film that leaves a bitter taste in one’s mouth as to how things have been resolved, as revenge in the face of futility tastes so good at first but the question becomes how do they now live with themselves. What they did was clearly a crime of passion. It was not that much different from Richard’s twisted way of handling his problem; and, he’s the psychopath and they are the pillars of the town as far as culture and respectability. The Tibetan Buddhists say that the only way of overcoming your enemies and your own grief, is to overcome all the hatred that is inside yourself. That is obviously what the pretentiously enlightened couple never developed into a more fuller human and spiritual enlightenment for themselves.

This is an overwhelming film that lays a lot of food for thought on the table, and does it in a manipulative but intelligent way. This is not your typical Hollywood revenge thriller, but a well-thought out film that has a real empathy for both the grieving couple and the passions of the young lovers. The acting was effortless by the entire cast. For me the biggest surprise was Tom Wilkinson, a British Shakespearean actor and the reluctant stripper in The Full Monty, playing with perfection a regular New England doctor. Marisa Tomei is just right as the befuddled and tormented woman who is a good person but who just can’t get a break in life, and can’t communicate with Frank’s overwrought parents. This film shows that her Oscar recently won, was not an accident. Sissy Spacek’s performance was brilliant. It goes hand in hand with Wilkinson’s, as her facial features do the acting. We know her as a control-freak who means well and who after her son’s death is in turmoil, someone who can’t get over that she was right in her judgment of her son’s relationship and was talked out of stopping it.

This one is a classic. One of the better and more engaging dramas put on the silver screen. It has a genuine feel and empathy for the Maine landscape and its natives.