grief akin to fear

a commentary by Tony McRae

C.S. Lewis writes in A Grief Observed:  "No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear."  Lewis does not say that grief is fear, but rather that it seems like fear.  When grief permeates one's being, nothing else matters much.  

This fearful condition spawned by an intense sorrow is at the heart of Tod Williams’ “The Door in the Floor,” based on the first third of John Irving’s novel “A Widow for One Year.”  Ted and Marion Cole have lost their two teenage sons in an automobile accident.  They bear some responsibility since they both were drinking and let the boys drive in awful wintry conditions.  Each reacts differently to these deaths:  Marion assumes an almost catatonic persona, even as she has an affair with a high schooler who resembles one of her dead sons.  Her lovemaking has the desperate edge of one who has lost everything.  

Her husband Ted, on the other hand, seems only oblivious; at first view his primary goal seems to be the seduction of women. 

The central question posed by this film--How can one cope with a grief that is so engulfing, so depressive as to change our very being?--is answered obliquely.  Marion Cole, played by Kim Basinger, does not deal directly with her loss but escapes into some place so deep inside her that no one, not Eddie the teenager (Jon Foster) and especially not Ted can reach.  She will eventually leave husband and daughter, making a complete break with the past and, we may assume, with her own memories.  (I'm tempted to say with herself.)    

The oddest part of her departure is the taking of the family pictures that form the only emotional link between her daughter and her two brothers who died before she was born.  Perhaps Marion hopes little Ruth will be able to forget the boys and get on with her own life, which Marion seems unable to do.  She knows she will relive the car accident forever.

Let’s talk about Ted Cole, father and husband.  As played by Jeff Bridges, everything this man does--chase  women, play squash, comfort his four year-old daughter Ruth (Elle Fanning)--seems enveloped in a patina of sorrow.  The bathrobe he wears throughout the movie is a visible sign of that sorrow. He keeps himself locked up in that bathrobe because,  I believe, he fears the normalcy of life, the supposed freedom it has to offer.  The few times he smiles his eyes betray that fear.  I never once doubted that he loved his wife and daughter, and that is the wonder of Bridges’ performance.  Look closely at Bridges’ face as he  crouches down next to his wife’s car and peers into her face.  No actor I know can show that depth of sadness.  A.O.  Scott of The New York Times says that “Jeff Bridges offers perhaps the wittiest and richest piece of screen acting by an American man so far this year.”   I believe that Bridges’ Ted Cole is frightened and depressed, perhaps because he fears what he might do.  Albert Camus, the French novelist and philosophe, begins The Myth of Sisyphe:  "There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that."   Bridges' Ted Cole appears to be at that point in his life.  Irving's novel deals with this later in the story; the film  only poses the dilemma, and then obliquely.  But it's there in Bridges' face.

We may think it an irony that Ted Cole’s occupation is a writer of children’s stories.  Wow, we might say, do I want my children reading stories by this guy?  But consider children’s stories for a minute, particularly the classics.  Alice in Wonderland,” The Grimm fairytales, “Snow White” and “Pinocchio,” even such "cute" stories such as “Are You My Mother?” or “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”  These are scary tales for kids, every one of them.  Ted Cole’s story “The Door in the Floor” fits into this genre.  Whatever you do, the story tells children, don’t ever open the door in the floor.  Well of course a kid’s going to do just that, open the door.  If there’s something scary down there, so much the better.  Ted may think such subject matter is a way to prepare children for life’s grief.  We can't be sure of his motives, and I doubt Ted is himself.

This is complex movie making in the best sense.  By that I mean that we are never allowed into a character's mind; we are forced to interpret faces and gestures and sometimes enigmatic dialogue, often taken wholesale from Irvin's novel.  The outrageous conduct of Ted and Marion tempts us to make summary judgments.  We'd sell the movie short if we did.

Rated R for adult situations, adult language and nudity.