Welcome our newest correspondent, Amy Gentry. This is the first in her series about domestic thrillers. “In the midst of our current post–Gone Girl renaissance in domestic suspense,” she writes, “these films look more prescient than ever.”
When the director and screenwriter Curtis Hanson passed away last month, at the age of seventy-one, obituary writers agreed he’d be remembered longest for his 1997 James Ellroy adaptation, L.A. Confidential. It’s easy to see why L.A. Confidential gets all the love, with its balletic rhythms, its crafted-yet-earnest performances from Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe, and the beatific fatalism of its third-act plot twist reflected in the eyes of a dying Kevin Spacey. But my favorite Curtis Hanson moment comes from a film he made five years earlier, barely mentioned in his obits: The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.
In it, a stay-at-home mom played by Annabella Sciorra barges into the nursery of a house for sale and gasps in horrified recognition at something she sees on the shelf. “That’s a strange-looking toy,” says the male real-estate agent showing her the house. It’s not a toy at all, of course. It’s a breast pump—the perfect third-act reveal for what is perhaps Hollywood’s only entry in the subgenre of breast-feeding noir.
The Hand That Rocks the Cradle was Hanson’s first hit, pulling him from the kiddie-flick-and-exploitation doldrums of his early career into the big league. A low-budget thriller with no stars based on a film-school script by the first-time screenwriter Amanda Silver, it features Rebecca De Mornay as a revenge-crazed nanny named Peyton who terrorizes the picket-fence-perfect family of Sciorra’s Claire Bartel. A showcase for the low-key auteurism and deft balancing of dualities that would later define L.A. Confidential, it remains Hanson’s most underrated film, probably at least in part because of its association with the chronically underrated “women’s genre” of domestic suspense.
Thanks to the box-office success of Fatal Attraction in 1987, the early nineties saw a tidal wave of domestic thrillers, many with top-billed female leads. An entire cohort of powerhouse actresses—Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon—took early roles in these films dealing with the intimate perils of family life. In the midst of our current post–Gone Girl renaissance in domestic suspense, these films look more prescient than ever. While they often depict an unstable outsider who threatens the fundamental primacy of the family unit, they do so in a way that undercuts the stability of family life itself, especially for women. After all, if the stakes of a domestic thriller lie in the uncanny realization that the person you trust most is actually a homicidal stranger, it’s a paranoia that is especially trenchant for women, a third of whose murders are committed by romantic partners.
The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, with its dedication to the intimate horror of women’s lives, is the perfect place to launch an investigation of the genre. In its first fifteen minutes, one pregnant woman is molested by her gynecologist and another undergoes a bloody, late-term miscarriage and hysterectomy. There’s a weak causal link between the two female traumas—the gynecologist, faced with Claire’s charges of sexual assault, shoots himself, and his grief-stricken widow, Peyton, now reduced to poverty, goes into early labor. But the two women’s stories are aggressively crosscut in a way that emphasizes their similarities over than their differences, a nod to Hitchcock from the classicist Hanson, and not the last.
Focusing his attention on the women’s subjective experiences of trauma, Hanson draws out both moments to the point of discomfort. Close-ups of Claire’s face as the sleazy gynecologist massages her breast show her cycling through feelings intimately familiar to women who’ve been sexually touched without consent: shock, horror, self-doubt at her own interpretation of what’s happening, nervous appeasement, and, finally, sickened resignation. De Mornay’s emergency-delivery scene, though pitched at a much higher key, is equally focused on her character’s loss of control. As she screams in pain and terror, her doctor never addresses or even acknowledges her. A point-of-view shot from a panicked De Mornay craning to see her dying baby in the incubator is pointedly obstructed by hospital staff, who eventually inform the doctor—not her—that her baby is dead. I can’t think of a film that better illustrates certain brutally casual truths about women’s loss of agency and control in their reproductive role.
These twinned moments of molestation and miscarriage kick off a screenplay that spends as much time with Peyton’s point of view as it does with Claire’s. Because we know her motivations from the start, Peyton is more than a villain. She’s almost a second protagonist: Claire’s chilly, shell-shocked twin in trauma. It’s the same splitting that characterizes Hanson’s best work, and he knew it. “People discover who they are and what they’re all about by meeting their doppelgangers,” he once said, pointing out similarities between the dual protagonists of In Her Shoes and L.A. Confidential that even sympathetic reviewers of the Jennifer Weiner adaptation missed.
The film’s rigorous production design underlines the split by constantly juxtaposing two colors seemingly suggested by the Seattle shooting location: lush, fecund green and cold, oceanic blue. Claire makes her first appearance in a green plaid shirt, and is constantly shown puttering in greenhouses (her husband is a biotech researcher); the Bartel family and friends are costumed almost exclusively in green with gold and orange accents. Meanwhile, Peyton wears navy-blue suits and crisp, gray-blue tailored skirts to match her icy-blue eyes. She sleeps on striped-blue sheets and dons a perfectly tailored blue pencil skirt for a long, slow stroll away from Claire’s husband, Michael, that he seemingly can’t help himself from watching. As Peyton wins the family over one by one, the lighting in the white-walled house takes on a bluish cast, and, at a crucial moment in the film, Peyton makes the baby’s room over in her signature color. These careful schematics—framed by the cinematographer Robert Elswit in long shots by Seattle’s emerald forests and the bleak, steely Pacific—underscore a balancing act between the promise of fertility and the prison of biology.
Moreover, De Mornay never lets you forget Peyton’s backstory on the operating table. She plays Peyton in a dissociative trance of grief rather than a psychopathic rage, her icy calm only punctured by visible reminders of Claire’s fertility. Upon first seeing Claire’s infant son—the same age hers would have been—she gasps as if struck and puts a hand to her abdomen. Later, in the first of her many breastfeeding scenes, Peyton melts into a maternal smile over a temporarily sweetened score. Sure, by the final showdown, she’s whacking Claire with a shovel (useful for gardening as well as grave-digging); but ultimately, the film invites us to see Peyton and Claire as symmetrical losers in a game no woman can win.
Women responded strongly to The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, reportedly yelling “Kill the bitch!” during test screenings. While Susan Faludi clucked her tongue at this, I’d like to imagine it was the double bind that was the real bitch. Claire’s working-girl bestie, Marlene, played by Julianne Moore in code-breaking black, says it best over dinner early in the film: “A woman can feel like a failure if she doesn’t bring in fifty grand a year and still make time for blowjobs and homemade lasagna.” In the twenty-five years since it was written, has that line lost any of its sting? At least Marlene dies with her eyes open—literally. Murder weapon? The glass ceiling.
Amy Gentry is the author of the debut thriller Good as Gone, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in July 2016. Her writing on books and culture has appeared in Electric Literature, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, Salon, Fusion, and the Chicago Tribune, among others. Amy holds a doctorate in English and lives in Austin, Texas.