The Door in the Floor

(2004) *** R
111 min. Focus Features. Director: Tod Williams. Cast: Jeff Bridges, Kim Basinger, Bijou Phillips, Mimi Rogers, Jon Foster.

In his intriguing adaptation of the first 183 pages of John Irving's A Widow for One Year, writer-director Tod Williams loses some emotional clarity but gains haunting ambiguity. Faithful, but not slavishly so, to the novel's first part (two more parts follow the characters 32 and 37 years later, respectively), The Door in the Floor benefits from sensitive direction and three strong leading performances, from Jeff Bridges, Kim Basinger, and newcomer Jon Foster.

In another of his invaluable indie film turns, Bridges plays Ted Cole, a randy children's book author living in the beach community of East Hampton, New York (one of his scary best-sellers is named "The Door in the Floor"). Cole compensates for the premature deaths of his two sons with booze and affairs with local women, while his glacial wife Marion (Basinger) drifts from day to day. Their four-year-old daughter Ruth (Elle Fanning, Dakota's younger sister), born after her brothers passed, remains sprightly but fixated with her brothers, understanding them through the photos which line the dimly lit walls of the Cole home. Each photo has a story associated with it; undoubtedly, stories are the Coles' lifeblood.

Ted offers sixteen-year-old Eddie O'Hare (Foster) a summer job, ostensibly as his writer's assistant but with darker designs in mind; like Irving, Williams wisely maintains doubt about Ted's motivation(s) with Eddie. Suffice it to say that aspiring author Eddie becomes mesmerized by the ghostly residue of the Cole boys and the beauty of the wounded Marion. In the end, all of the characters face the pain of brutal, if necessary, transitions in their lives. For Eddie, the story's fulcrum, innocence will forever be lost.

Williams gently advances Irving's story from 1958 into the present, but the East Hampton community remains stubbornly in the past (with the exception, in a pitch-black comic moment, of Ted's spontaneous affinity for hip-hop artist Khia). With his soft features, Jon Foster makes a great shell-shocked foil to the cold-warring couple and the unsettlingly inquisitive child; more so, Foster tenderly navigates from reckless love through heartbreak to hard-won, adult sobriety. Bridges' profligate Ted, given to casual nudity when not loosely dressed under a wide-brimmed Picasso hat, barely covers his pulsing hurt with an artist's cultivated bluster. Climactically, Bridges nails a knockout monologue about his sons' deaths (Academy, take note: this scene would make an excellent clip for an Oscar telecast).

Basinger suffers the most from the adaptation from page to screen. In the novel, Marion is inscrutable enough, but the filmic narrative loses Irving's omniscient insight and interior monologue, making her character yet more remote. Still, Williams evinces a kinship with the material, visualizing it adroitly; despite the present-day setting, Williams keeps the all-important photographs in black and white, while shooting some scenes through the "frames" afforded by windows or doors. Without exception, the characters try to "frame" their chaotic circumstances by reshaping them into comfortingly self-ordered narratives. When a college student confronts Ted about the "atavistic symbols of fear" in his children's stories, the comment is at once laughable and accidentally on the mark: nothing is more fearful to Ted, Marion, Eddie, or Ruth than the shapely thresholds of their home or their bodies, or the shapeless ones of higher consciousness, love, and death.

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