As part of Genius Entertainment's Best-Selling Authors: Books On Film series, Tim O'Brien's In the Lake of the Woods has been released on DVD, a terrific 1996 made-for-TV adaptation of O'Brien's harrowing examination of a disintegrating marriage and possible murder mystery, starring Peter Strauss and Kathleen Quinlan. Miles above the usual Lifetime Channel or WE offerings, Tim O'Brien's In the Lake of the Woods features a typically strong performance from Strauss and an admirably diffused, open-ended approach to the murder mystery angle.
John Waylan (Peter Strauss), a popular candidate for a Senate seat in Minnesota, soon finds his political career over when it's discovered he hid his involvement with an infamous massacre during his tour of duty in Vietnam. Retreating with his wife Kathy (Kathleen Quinlan) to a beautiful lakeside cabin, owned by friend Claude Rasmussen (Richard Anderson), Waylan's world quickly comes unraveled as his marriage - already strained by his wife's past infidelity and her aversion to politics - pulls apart at the same time he fights overwhelmingly sad, terrifying flashbacks to his troubled childhood. Finally, a complete break comes when one morning, after a swim, John discovers that Kathy has disappeared. What happened to her? Did she run away? Did she drown? Or was she murdered? And what will become of John, when he falls under suspicion by the local police?
Fans of novelist Tim O'Brien's gritty autobiographical/fictional takes on the after-effects of the Vietnam War, as well as the ambiguity of "facts" versus "reality" as perceived by different individuals, will be pleased with this straight-on, focused adaptation by screenwriter Philip Rosenberg and director Carl Schenkel. Tightly compressed, the story quickly moves to the central showdown between John and Kathy, where they parry back and forth as she tries to reach her emotionally unreachable husband.
There's a gravity to Tim O'Brien's In the Lake of the Woods, a weight no doubt brought by the serious source material, that elevates this above most of the "movie-of-the-week" titles you'll see on cable. And like the source novel, the ending is left ambiguous - a gutsy thing to do considering most viewers for these kinds of films expect a neatly wrapped up, cathartic ending. It's up to you to determine what happened to Kathy - and indeed John - instead of the usual format of spelling everything out for the audience. Director Schenkel (along with editor Toni Morgan) give the viewers multiple options for what may have happened to Cathy, variously shuffled throughout the third act of the film, leaving viewers increasingly on edge and wary as they discover they may never know exactly what happened.
Another factor in Tim O'Brien's In the Lake of the Woods's favor is the strong central performance by Peter Strauss as Waylan. Strauss, the one-time king of the miniseries and made-for-TV movie, gives one of his usual controlled, dead-serious performances here. Playing a former Vietnam vet and magician called ominously "The Sorcerer" by his men, Strauss is adept at getting across a tightly controlled man who battles multiple past influences - almost all bad - in a futile and ultimately sad effort to maintain personal control. Strauss, who usually comes off on the surface as a conventional smooth lead, has real believability when he snaps on screen, with a barely suppressed anger that's impressive when revealed. Equally good is Kathleen Quinlan (like Strauss, underrated as a performer), who does wonders with a generally underwritten part (the details of her affair are shakily handled, with one inexplicable scene of her perhaps coming back from an assignation - the film isn't clear on this - dropped down as a flashback in the middle of the film). Quinlan, always expressive, has to appear supportive and in love with Wayland, while at the same time, subtly showing that she fears what could be inside of him, which Quinlan does quite well. They're a good team together - you believe the dynamics that these are two long-married people with a good deal of unresolved trouble between them.
I've never been a fan of characters in a mystery film speaking directly into the camera in a "confessional" framework (I think it works better in a comedy), and it doesn't work here, either - far better to have the notion of Wayland's secrecy and its effects on the other characters shown visually, rather than having them speak directly into the camera, giving out exposition that breaks the mood of the piece (it's a literary device that often fails on camera). A few other elements strike discordant tones in Tim O'Brien's In the Lake of the Woods, including a deputy sheriff character that's slightly ridiculous in his overdrawn malevolence, as well as a small, nitpicky detail that stood out for me (nobody thought of dragging the lake first?) Still, there's a dark pull to Tim O'Brien's In the Lake of the Woods, a nasty undercurrent of suppressed rage and unfulfilled childhood love, that permeates the film, ably brought across by Strauss, making Tim O'Brien's In the Lake of the Woods an above-average telemovie.
The full screen, 1.33:1 video image for Tim O'Brien's In the Lake of the Woods is adequate, with quite a bit of grain and at times, a slightly fade, contrasty look - not unusual for a telemovie from eleven years back.
The Dolby Digital English 2.0 stereo mix for Tim O'Brien's In the Lake of the Woods is entirely adequate for this largely dialogue-driven film. There are no subtitles or close-captions available.
There are no extras for Tim O'Brien's In the Lake of the Woods.
A controlled, powerful performance by Peter Strauss (and an equally accomplished, sympathetic turn by Kathleen Quinlan), along with an admirably ambiguous approach to the murder mystery angle, makes Tim O'Brien's In the Lake of the Woods one of the better TV literary adaptations I've seen. Focused, smooth direction keeps you guessing right up to the end. I highly recommend Tim O'Brien's In the Lake of the Woods.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.