The most common criticism, then and now, of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, the concluding film of Curtis Hanson’s great “modern malaise” trilogy (picking up where The Bedroom Window and Bad Influence left off), is its “implausibility.” That criticism isn’t unfounded–yes, it’s highly implausible, especially the set-up–just misguided.
What’s more implausible than modernity? And what’s more real than the stuff you couldn’t possibly make up?
In a world where identities are exchanged on an increasingly ad hoc basis, often with dizzying speed (some colleges now ban “he/him” and “she/her” from their orientation material as too constricting–might hurt someone’s feelings), why would a woman who blames another woman for the deaths of her husband and unborn baby not try to take that woman’s husband and child away from her?
I write a lot about artists maintaining their relevance to the future by sensing the air. I also mention, from time to time, that pop artists–singers and pulp genre story-tellers in particular–tend to be better at this than the highbrows who aim to last the ages.
So call Hanson high-pulp if you want, but let’s not forget he had a real genius for this stuff. This movie doesn’t work as well as it does a quarter-century later because the old stranger-in-the-house script is done with more panache than usual (it is, but that’s just box office mojo–this was his breakout hit and no doubt the reason his next two films, The River Wild and L.A. Confidential, both small steps backward, featured massive budgets, big name casts, and not much else beyond competence and his unerring eye for composition). It works so well because Hanson’s feel for the disquiet lying under the placid surface of modern suburbia puts tension in every scene until the standard letdown of a box-office mandated denouement. Put another way, it works so well because, up until that moment, he and his excellent cast have spent more time evoking Patricia Highsmith than Alfred Hitchcock.
Nothing’s ladled on then. It’s all as banal and meticulous as you would expect in a horror thriller set in the safest, freest place humanity has ever provided for itself–not just America, but Seattle! The early “happy family” scenes drip with real malevolence, which only intensifies when Rebecca De Mornay’s character shows up as a woman wearing a mask that won’t peel off.
It’s only the happy ending that keeps this from being a masterpiece.
The key to the rest is that De Mornay–nobody’s idea of a great actress then, though, having been on a mini-marathon of her films lately, I’m beginning to wonder why–pulls off the miracle of making her psychopath both interesting and plausible. (This latter despite the script letting her down on occasion. Not even Hanson could resist that inevitable scene, here played in a greenhouse bathroom of all places, where the psycho goes off alone and smashes things just to remind us of who they really are. That scene’s more jarring than usual here, because, for once, it isn’t even necessary for the slow people.) She’s cat quick, cat smooth, and cat vicious. When she twists a little boy’s arm or torments a mentally challenged handyman or murders a woman who’s caught on to her game of nanny’s-come-to-take-over, you can see how she might get away with it…if this weren’t a Hollywood movie.
And it’s that element that remains unsettling, no matter how many plot twists you see coming.
Everybody else is just doing what they’re supposed to do. Kind of like “real” life. It’s De Mornay, no doubt helped by Hanson’s considerable gift for mood, who gets under the skin of the plot. You know she isn’t going to make it out of the final scene because it ‘s a movie and movies are, by and large, there to comfort us. That was as true in 1992 as a hundred years ago or now. But against all that is the sense that we can all thank God this is only a movie and not, say, a Patricia Highsmith novel or life in this world where we’re really only as free as we are safe, and how free is that when your worst nightmare is only a trip to the gynecologist away?
Compare this movie to any week’s headlines and you might be reminded just how easily the skins of our safe, free worlds can not only be penetrated, but ripped away.
Because in those worlds that aren’t protected by Hollywood money (and despite the sense of sin I noted being all over Hanson’s Bad Influence in an earlier post being muted here, never allowed to breathe in a single image or stray bit of dialogue that might give the devil’s presence away) De Mornay’s Peyton Flanders–an invention of her “Mrs. Mott”–would rule a lot more than the cradle.
She might even make you like it.
Especially if, instead of running about swinging a shovel at everybody’s head, she decided to just sit quietly and keep reminding you how much of it was your own idea.