“In the Bedroom” Rescue Fantasy Has Mixed Message

Domestic violence experts give thumbs up for accurate portrayal of the danger within. Yet they express concern that the film replays stereotypes.

Marisa Tomei

(WOMENSENEWS)-Advocates for victims of domestic violence welcome the raw portrayal of an abusive husband in the film “In the Bedroom,” but worry that the narrative suggests his wife could have prevented the tragedy that drives the story.

Natalie Strout (Marisa Tomei), a 30-something soon-to-be-ex-spouse, is separated from Richard (William Mapother), the brooding menace of a husband who struts around Natalie's life with an irritating sense of entitlement. He won't accept that his marriage is over, despite the separation and Natalie's new relationship with Frank Fowler (Nick Stahl), a younger, more emotionally accessible man.

Natalie lives in fear and looks the other way while her husband breaks all the rules. At one point, Richard tears her living room apart in a fit of rage while their young sons cower in their rooms. Though she is terrified, Natalie doesn't call the police. After all, Richard has never hit her.

Frank's attempt to rescue Natalie and the boys is the film's most memorable scene. Richard shoots Frank in the head, killing him instantly.

The filmmakers “set it up as if she [Natalie] should have done more. I think they should have been more responsible with it, but it was told from the perspective of the boyfriend's parents,” said Beverly Grossman, a policy analyst with the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Some of the film “was perpetuating a stereotype of what a battered woman is-or should do,” Grossman said. Men need to be held accountable for their behavior, she said-something that didn't happen in the movie. Nearly 95 percent of domestic violence victims are women and males comprise a similarly high percentage of abusers of adult partners.

“A woman doesn't have control over his violence and that's the message we need to get out to the public,” Grossman added. “We need to be careful who we hold accountable for the abuse.”

Domestic Violence Takes Many Forms

Although the story is not told from Natalie's vantage point, domestic violence experts point to the dilemmas she faces-how seriously to take violence, when and if to seek police protection and how to protect her children-as an engine driving the film's power.

“What domestic violence is about is maintaining power and control over an individual, and he may be able to do that without using physical abuse,” Grossman said. Domestic violence is not about mental illness or alcoholism, she said, but about the abuser “feeling a lack of control.”

“Women in abusive relationships often feel that they can save the guy or perhaps that they could have done more to stop him, as though they have provoked him, so they aren't just being passive and accepting the abuse, but are trying to manage and transform it,” said psychotherapist Susie Orbach.

Janet Carter, managing director of the San Francisco-based Family Violence Prevention Fund, said that a film that enacts a quick escalation from destructive rage to murderous act portrays an important reality. “Abusive behavior often escalates from verbal to physical abuse,” Carter said, “and it is important that victims seek safety and support as quickly as possible.”

Fear of Reprisals Both Physical, Economic

Although in the movie a 911 call might have prevented Frank's murder, most victims' advocates agree that family court, where a woman can ask for an order of protection, is the best way to deal with violent relationships. Another bit of common advice is for abused parents to teach their children to call the police in the event of an emergency. Parents separated from an abuser should arrange for the children to visit with their father at public, neutral places, experts said, and prevent the abuser from entering the family home.

Many women-like Natalie in the film-hesitate to involve the courts because when others approached the criminal justice system, “nothing happened,” said Sherry Frohman, executive director of the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Besides, Frohman said, many women don't want the husband in jail because he won't be able to pay child support.

“For a lot of women she's in poverty after he's gone,” Frohman said. “These women just want the abuse to stop.” Natalie does, however, take the important step of leaving her husband, something most abused women are loath to consider at first, said Alyssa Hantke, a New York City social worker.

She said that professionals working with abused adults should at first take a “harm-reduction approach” by making suggestions that they put all their important documents and a few basic items like a toothbrush in one place in case they ever need to flee.

“Then you can talk about how the relationship is affecting them and how it's affecting their children,” Hantke said.

Julie Ostrowski is a freelance writer based in New York.

For more information:

“In the Bedroom” (2001) Story:

National Domestic Violence Hotline:

New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence: