Meticulously observed and devastatingly well-acted, actor Todd Field's feature directing debut chronicles the descent into extraordinary darkness of an ordinary couple whose family life is shattered by sudden violence. Based on the short story "Killings" by the late Andre Dubus, the film's metaphorical title alludes to the part of a lobster trap that holds the flailing crustaceans fast. Matt (Tom Wilkinson) and Ruth (Sissy Spacek) appear to be gliding smoothly through middle-age: He's a respected local doctor, she teaches high school music and their marriage is a felicitous blend of mutual comfort and still-vital passion. They own a lovely home in a small town on the coast of Maine, and their only child, college-age Frank (Nick Stahl), is the sort of son who'd make any parent proud. Kind, intelligent, diligent and mature, he hopes to study architecture and spends summers working on a lobster boat, equally at home with the unpredictable openness of the sea and the intricate order of building design. The flaw in their contentment is Frank's new girlfriend, Natalie (Marisa Tomei): She's older, the mother of two small boys, and none-too-amicably separated from her volatile husband, Richard Strout (William Mapother), whose family owns the fish canning factory that's a cornerstone of the town's economy. Natalie is a hot number, but she comes with a lot of baggage and frankly — as Ruth can't help but notice — she's a little rough around the edges. Ruth can't see past the relationship's potential to damage Frank's future; Matt takes a more laid-back view (perhaps he's even a little envious that his son's snared such a knockout), but can't escape the miasma of Ruth's anxiety. Even Ruth doesn't imagine that things will end with murder, or more correctly, begin with murder. Matt and Ruth find themselves entangled in the justice system, and the bitter injustice of the way things play out is like a burning in their veins, which they internalize while making a superficial show getting on with things. Matt sees patients, Ruth continues to coach her girls' chorus in the repertory of keening, traditional Balkan tunes they're scheduled to perform at a town function. But the Fowlers can't really get on with things; the fiber of their lives has been torn apart. Their subsequent actions might seem shockingly out of character, if the film didn't so carefully suggest that corrosive grief is as powerfully annihilative as a bomb; it taps into an ugliness so visceral that all bets are off.
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