Dr. Matt Fowler (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife Ruth (Sissy Spacek) are throwing a summer barbecue at which their lone prodigy Frank (Nick Stahl) is proudly showing off his summer romance. Ruth vehemently disapproves: Natalie (Marisa Tomei) is an older single mother of two who is not quite divorced from the dark abusive Richard Strout (William Mapother) whose family runs their town of Camden Maine. For Frank Natalie is someone to keep the pipes greased before he heads off to study architecture at graduate school in the fall. Maybe. Frank is thinking of getting serious with Natalie and ditching school if Natalie would have him but there's that not quite ex-husband to deal with. The not quite ex-husband ends up killing Frank (this is supposed to be a plot twist but is the only action in the first two hours of the movie) which leads to much soul searching for Matt and Ruth--the raison d'etre of the movie.
With all due respect to Spacek who's been receiving a lot of Oscar buzz for her turn it's really Tom Wilkinson (The Full Monty Wilde The Patriot) who gives the most outstanding astonishing performance in this film. Matt's stilted missteps at each and every turn are so human so real you empathize with the pain he's feeling while you cringe at his every inappropriate action. An Academy win for Wilkinson seems more than merited though likely won't happen. Marisa Tomei is as good as she's ever been in the role of Frank's lover Natalie. The emotional tug-of-war in her relationship with Nick is clear on her face and the distress of never getting Ruth's approval is deafening. Spacek has a hard time claiming even the second-best performance of the film but she is compelling as Ruth the kind-hearted high school teacher who's become more closed and unforgiving than she ever imagined. You can see Spacek shutting down as her world crumbles around her. William Mapother and Nick Stahl do fine jobs with their (relatively) limited characters especially Mapother who is sufficiently creepy and desperate as Natalie's husband.
An actor turned director Todd Field wastes the fine performances in his debut film. Field seemingly likes to impart significance in the mundane moments of real life which works only sporadically. Field's direction is similar to Matt's reaction to his son's death: all of his actions seem stiff and mannered and when he does do something appropriate it's a complete accident. Worse Field leaves no room for character development only letting the characters descend further and further into despair ultimately turning the film into an art house Death Wish. (With apologies to Charles Bronson.) Given the supposed strength of the Maine proletariat it would have nice to see Matt and Ruth Fowler struggle against their evil inclinations before giving in so completely. Under Field's helming the film flounders at inopportune moments rendering the story utterly meaningless.