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Who's your mommy?
on October 26, 2014
Curtis Hanson's "The Hand that Rocks the Cradle" comes out of the starting gate with guns blazing. Within the first 7 or so minutes, the script makes us squirm about several issues, starting with white suburbia's fear of black men in hoodies, which then turns into the awkwardness of dealing with those that have mental disabilities. Having gotten our attention, screenwriter Amanda Silver then sends us along with Annabella Sciorra to the ob/gyn, where John de Lancie -- yeah, him, freaking "Q" from "Star Trek: The Next Generation" -- contrives to send the assisting nurse out of the examination room while giving Sciorra breast and pelvic exams. For the latter, he surreptitiously removes the latex glove from the examining hand. Sciorra, by the way, is pregnant. Well, Sciorra leaves in a panic, sucking on an aspirator for her asthma. She calls her husband home, tells him about the molestation, they report it, other women find courage to come forward, and the miscreant De Lancie finds himself on the evening news. He blows his brains out. Next, we see his widow, Rebecca De Mornay, surrounded by lawyers who tell her that she will likely inherit nothing from De Lancie's estate, and that she'll have to move out of their mansion. She rises unsteadily: she is also pregnant, it turns out. A lawyer asks her if she needs help; she replies with one of the most baleful glares I've ever seen in a movie. As she tries to leave the room, she collapses. Next, the emergency room, where she bloodily miscarries. The opening stretch ends with her gazing soullessly at the hospital room TV, where the news is (completely unrealistically, but who cares?) reporting Sciorra's story, complete with her photo. Plans for revenge form.
It's one of the most disturbing opening sequences for a thriller ever devised.
Cybil Shepherd had originally been considered for the role of De Mornay's psychotic nanny. She demurred, famously saying that "the story preyed on the worst fears of women" and that it conflicted with her feminist beliefs. She might have had a point. After all, Sciorra's heroine is made rather helpless both by her asthma and her apparent stupidity. She hires a luscious, thirtyish blonde to be a nanny. She needs that nanny so that she can build a greenhouse in her backyard. What woman with a 3-month-old infant has the energy or inclination to be out working in the yard eight hours a day? She has made a best friend out of her husband's old flame, Julianne Moore. Moore may be married to another guy, but I'm not buying that a married woman enjoys hanging out with her husband's former girlfriend (and vice versa, actually). One starts to wonder if Sciorra's gullibility and stupidity are conscious decisions by screenwriter Silver. Is this movie a manual for young mothers? -- Don't Do What Claire Does, Now on Blu-Ray. Or perhaps a chance for viewers to enjoy feeling superior to stupid people in movies? You decide.
Well, if the movie isn't a feminist one, it isn't because men are calling the shots, that's for sure. First of all, we've got Matt McCoy as the bearded, sweater-wearing, scientist husband. Not only does he look like Kenny Loggins, he looks like he *listens* to Kenny Loggins records. He's like the anti-matter of all that is masculine. De Mornay comes on to him a few times, but he lacks the initiative to either dive into the pool of extramarital bliss or to kick her out of the house as an interloper: he just stares at her impotently as she stands dripping wet before him. Then there's Ernie Hudson as the family's mentally disabled handyman Solomon. While his character's name is a clue to his ultimate wisdom about De Mornay, he nonetheless has to endure her calling him a "retard" and slapping him in the face. The transgression of such a scene -- a beautiful psycho blonde slapping around a tall, bulky African-American and calling him names -- is shocking, to say the least. Not quite sure you'd see such a scene in a mainstream movie today.
So yeah, it's De Mornay calling the shots around here. Her plan is not to wipe out Sciorra's family and let her stew in suicidal grief: such a plan is too finite for De Mornay's lunatic ambition. Rather, she works to supplant Sciorra entirely. Like Iago, she's incessantly improvising, using the slightest materials to break down Sciorra: a dropped earring, a missing package, a pair of child's underwear, a dropped hint here and there. I frankly don't know why she doesn't succeed, given the weaknesses of her enemies. Well, I guess Evil Triumphant is a bit too much, even for the Lifetime crowd. It's perhaps more than enough that the specters of the abuse of the mentally disabled, child molestation, sexual assault, and the terrifying humiliation of being *supplanted* by another woman in one's roles of wife and mother are given their full rancid vent in this classic, transgressive neo-noir.
5 out of 5.