When Eddie O’Hare (Jon Foster), a fledgling writer, lands a job as the assistant to acclaimed children’s book author Ted Cole (Jeff Bridges), he takes it as a harbinger of good things to come. He couldn’t be more wrong. We perceive this to be so because of a sentence, one single line, that Bridges utters: “I want to thank you for being a good friend to Marion.” There’s a thrashing undercurrent of menace in these words; Bridges and Bridges alone could block the surge and still offer a peek at what’s to come. He’ll explode the dam only when he’s good and ready.
Such is the beauty of Bridges’ performance in “The Door in the Floor,” based on John Irving’s expansive novel “A Widow for One Year”: He has the ability to maintain an air of predatory control in the face of shocking circumstances. It’s as if whatever happens is a predicted outcome of the plan of attack he’s devised. His calm allows him to disarm nearly everyone around him, like the women who act as models for his sketches — all of whom he puts through a ringer of emotions, beginning with reverence and ending with disgust and disdain — or the young and impressionable Eddie. The only woman he can’t fool is his wife Marion (Kim Basinger, haunting and heartbreaking). She remains with him because they have suffered the same tragedy, even if both emerged on the other side completely different people. If not for Ted, Marion might cease to exist, so far from the land of the living has she drifted. Their mangled bond provides both with a strange sort of sustenance. Maybe neither could surve without it.
Director Tod Williams takes his time unraveling the reasons behind the dissintegration of Marion and Ted’s marriage. Williams’ methods typify T.S. Eliot’s thoughts on poetry, which he described in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” as “not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion.” “The Door in the Floor,” which deals with the first 1/3 of Irving’s novel, fits this definition. Though the film tells an emotional story, there are no shrieking fits of weeping, no histrionics. Marion and Ted’s story begins with their trial separation. After the deaths of their teen-aged sons Tom and Tim in a grisly car accident, they’ve grown so far apart they’re essentially strangers. Grief has turned her into a wisp of a woman, while Ted numbs his pain with alcohol and bedding his nude models. The tragedy aside, their only link is their young daughter Ruth (Elle Fanning), who makes a nightly ritual of looking at the photographic shrine built to brothers she never knew. Into this dysfunctional environment walks Eddie, who believes he has much to learn from Ted. He does, but what he learns has nothing to do with writing; instead, he has an affair with Marion. Only when Ruth catches her mother and Eddie in bed together do Ted’s plans come to fruition.
In a slow-burning character study like “The Door in the Floor,” everything depends on the performances and the director’s knack for capturing the small, telling details within the performances. Basinger is not terribly expressive; here, that’s an advantage. She has a bruised quality, a rawness that Williams, unlike so many other directors, intuits how to film. Her final scene with Bridges consists of no words. As she silently and gently strokes Ted’s face, it’s clear that words in this moment are unnecessary. Bridges, too, never hits a sour note. He is the only choice to play a man like Ted Cole, who can make you smile and shred your heart even while he’s pulling the knife across your throat. He’s a monster, alright, but he’s also a fascinating enigma. In fact, at the film’s conclusion, he is the unanswered question. Did staggering tragedy create the Ted Cole we see, or did his sons’ deaths merely force his dark side into the light? Bridges is too shrewd and skilled an actor to summarize his character so methodically. There is no explanation for Ted Cole, and because of Bridges we almost don’t need one.
(A special thanks goes out to Pompous Film Snob for this recommendation.)