The film is set in an exclusive beach community on Long Island, where children's book author and artist Ted Cole (Jeff Bridges) lives with his wife Marion (Kim Basinger) and their young daughter Ruth (Elle Fanning), who usually is supervised by her nanny Alice. Their home is filled with photographs of the couple's teenaged sons, who were killed in an automobile accident; the tragedy left Marion deeply depressed and her marriage in shambles. The one shared experience that holds the family together is a ritualistic daily viewing of a home gallery of family photographs of the deceased sons.
Ted and Marion temporarily separate, each alternately living in the house and in a rented apartment in town. Ted hires Eddie O'Hare (Jon Foster) to work as his summer assistant and driver, since his own license was suspended for drunk driving. An aspiring writer, Eddie admires Ted, but he soon discovers the older man is a self-absorbed womanizer with an erratic work schedule that leaves the young assistant to fill his time as best he can. Eddie and Marion soon engage in a sexual relationship, which seems not to bother Ted, who is enjoying trysts of his own with local resident Evelyn Vaughn (Mimi Rogers) during sketching sessions at which she serves as his model. When Ruth walks into the room while Eddie and her mother are making love, Ted becomes upset with his wife and advises Eddie he may have to testify about the incident if Ted decides to fight for full custody of the child.
Marion eventually leaves Ted and their daughter, taking with her all the photographs and negatives of her dead sons, save one that is being reframed after it was broken, injuring Ruth. Eddie takes the initiative to retrieve the one remaining reframed picture so that Ruth can have at least one partial image of her brothers.
Ted confides in Eddie the story of the car accident that caused his sons' deaths. Ted suggests his and Marion's drunkenness and Ted's failure to remove snow from the rear tail light and turn signal lights likely contributed to their sons' deaths. Eddie learns more about what may have contributed to Marion's intense despair, mental states, and choice to abandon her remaining child. At the end of the film, Ted does not fully understand why Marion left, and he questions, "What kind of mother leaves her daughter?"
At the end of the story, Ted stops while playing alone in his squash court, looking at the camera with sadness, lifts "the door in the floor" and goes in.Jeff Bridges as Ted Cole
Kim Basinger as Marion Cole
Jon Foster as Eddie
Bijou Phillips as Alice
Elle Fanning as Ruth Cole
Mimi Rogers as Evelyn Vaughn
Donna Murphy as Frame Shop Owner
John Rothman as Minty O'Hare
Harvey Loomis as Dr. Loimis
A. O. Scott of The New York Times called the film "surely the best movie yet made from Mr. Irving's fiction" and added, "It may even belong in the rarefied company of movies that are better than the books on which they are based . . . If you examine the story closely, you can find soft spots of implausibility and cliché. But the shakiness of some of the film's central ideas . . . matters far less than it might . . . The Door in the Floor nimbly shifts between melodrama and comedy, with a delightful and perfectly executed excursion into high farce near the end, and it seems perpetually to be discovering new possibilities for its characters . . . Mr. Foster and Ms. Basinger are both very good, but the film is dominated by Mr. Bridges' performance . . . [He] not only dominates the movie, he animates it. He is heroically life-size."
Peter Travers of Rolling Stone rated the film 3½ out of four stars, calling it "extraordinary in every way, from the pitch-perfect performances to the delicate handling of explosive subject matter." He added, "It's bumpy going at times. But Williams is a talent to watch and a wonder with the actors. Basinger's haunted beauty burns in the memory – this is her finest work. And Bridges, one of the best actors on the planet, blends the contradictions of Ted . . . into an indelible portrait. You can't shut the door on this spellbinder. It gets into your head."
James Christopher of The Times observed, "What's strange about the film is that it's pitched like a play. There are no obvious ructions yet it bristles with small riddles and puzzling inconsistencies . . . The chemistry is absurd and tragic. Bridges is the obvious pull; Basinger is a one-note trauma. The story is curiously spellbinding, and fabulously ambivalent about their sins."
Jeff Bridges was nominated for the Independent Spirit Award for Best Lead Male but lost to Paul Giamatti for Sideways. Tod Williams was nominated for the Independent Spirit Award for Best Screenplay but lost to Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor for Sideways, and was nominated for the Golden Shell at the San Sebastian Film Festival but lost to Bahman Ghobadi for Turtles Can Fly. The film received the National Board of Review Award for Excellence In Filmmaking.