Dir: Todd Field. US. 2001. 135mins.

Indie actor Todd Field makes an impressive feature directorial debut with In The Bedroom, a sharply-observed portrait of how one upper-middle-class family comes to terms with sudden tragedy. Set in New England, this meditative, multilayered drama is as much noteworthy for its accomplishments, providing a detailed chronicle of a whole community, as for the pitfalls it avoids, specifically its determination to steer clear of sentimentality and melodrama.

A large ensemble, headed by Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek as the distressed parents, Nick Stahl as their teenage son and Marisa Tomei as the son's older lover, renders stupendous performances that serve the material in the delicate way it deserves. Miramax, which acquired North American rights during Sundance itself, will need to devise a shrewd marketing campaign for a quiet, lyrical film, whose last reel might prove controversial in its criticism of the US legal system and its suggestion of vigilantism as a viable line of action.

From the first shot, of a young romantic couple running in the open fields, to the last one, of a disturbed husband returning home after conducting a shocking act of violence, the aptly-titled In The Bedroom acquits itself magnificently with the kind of sensitive tone seldom seen in mainstream Hollywood or, for that matter, offbeat indies. This is clearly a movie that takes its time in delineating a family portrait from the inside, with meticulous attentiveness to its routine existence, joys and sorrows.

Adapting to the screen a short story by the late Andre Dubus, Field and collaborator Rob Festinger set out to explore the tensions that tear apart one prominent Maine family. Matt Fowler (Wilkinson), the town's decent doctor, seems happily married to Ruth (Spacek), who leads the local school's choir. Frank (Stahl), their only son, is madly in love with next-door neighbour Natalie (Tomei), an older woman who is separated but not yet divorced from her brutish husband, Richard (Mapother).

If the genuine love between Frank and Natalie is not an issue, age and status differences are very much so. Frank's parents react to the affair in divergent ways: Matt does not exactly approve, but his manly side takes pride in that his son has scored so well. In contrast, the more prudish and protective Ruth, a stern woman who likes to be in control, does not hesitate to express her disapproval of the romance, fearing its negative effects on Frank's plans to attend a respectable college in the autumn in pursuit of his interest in architecture.

The growing affection of Natalie's kids for Frank arouses Richard's jealousy, and in an act of uncontrolled temper he bursts into the house and shoots the innocent Frank. All of this happens in the first reel, which means that Field is more interested in the aftermath of the tragedy, specifically in the coming to terms with a devastating loss, than in the act of violence itself or the lenient approach of the court system. Indeed, the essence of the narrative is devoted to the growing distance between Matt and Ruth, neither of whom is at first able to articulate or express the anguish. Matt chooses to keep busy with his buddies and in outdoor activities, reporting to work even on weekends. Ruth, in contrast, internalises her pain and withdraws into a solitary existence that consists of a heavy dosage of daytime TV and smoking. It is only a matter of time before the tensions explode and mutual accusations are charged.

The turning point occurs when Ruth spots a happy Richard in a supermarket and later finds out that he's working at a bar. Encounters with the legal system leave both partners enraged and frustrated. It soon becomes clear that if any action is to be taken, initiative must come from within the family itself. It is in this ideological element that In The Bedroom becomes controversial, presenting a furious father who has come to believe that under specific conditions, it is justified to take the law into his hands.

It does help that Matt remains a sympathetic character throughout the bitter end and that director Field by no means suggests that after the dubious vigilantism the Fowlers will restore equilibrium and regain their peace of mind. And it is to the film-makers' credit that, while there is closure to the central dilemma, it defies Hollywood conventions of a happy ending. Indeed, the last frames raise a new set of questions and viewers are left wondering about the fate of the marriage.

It is tempting to compare In The Bedroom to Robert Redford's Ordinary People, a portrait of a torn family in the aftermath of one of its son's accidental death. Both films focused on the anatomy of a married couple whose inability to communicate with each other proves the instrument of their undoing.

However, unlike Redford's movie, which presented a cold and callous Wasp-ish mother, whose departure strengthens the responsive bond of father and surviving son, In The Bedroom refuses easy condemnation and avoids taking sides, dwelling instead on the internal dynamics of a marriage under stress.

The zeitgeist has certainly changed over the last two decades. In 1980, Ordinary People was seen as a defence of patriarchy in the face of a feminist challenge. That movie, which won best picture Oscar, valorised psychotherapy - the most compassionate figure was Judd Hirsch's Jewish shrink - and sensitised the father figure at the expense of the mother. A more subtle and ambiguous film, In The Bedroom leaves a lot of issues pending. For that, viewers should be all the more grateful to Field, who, based on the evidence here, may develop into a major film-maker.

Prod cos: Greenstreet Films, Good Machine. Int'l sales: Good Machine Int'l. US dist: Miramax. Exec prods: Ted Hope, John Penotti. Prods: Graham Leader, Ross Katz, Todd Field. Scr: Rob Festinger, Todd Field, based on a story by Andre Dubus. Cinematography: Antonio Calvache. Prod des: Shannon Hart. Ed: Frank Reynolds. Music: Thomas Newman. Main cast: Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek, Nick Stahl, Marisa Tomei, William Mapother, William Wise, Celia Weston.