Setting Boundaries


Our Correspondents

Sleeping with the Enemy cozies right up to the hard truth that abusers are everywhere.

A still from Sleeping with the Enemy.

Every domestic thriller is the sequel to a romantic comedy. Romantic comedies reward impulsive, boundary-smashing gestures and unflagging perseverance; thrillers check in on the kinds of couples created by such careless disregard for personal space. With just a little tweaking, it’s easy to imagine Julia Roberts’s abusive millionaire husband in 1991’s Sleeping with the Enemy as the same character played by Richard Gere in Pretty Woman a year earlier, climbing toward Roberts up the fire escape, a bouquet of roses clenched in his teeth.

Pretty Woman did for romantic comedies what Fatal Attraction did for domestic thrillers, and it made a star of Roberts; her way of, as Janet Maslin put it, “smiling shyly with every particle of her being” spun the most cynical meet-cute of the nineties into something as fresh and naive as a Downy ad. Sleeping with the Enemy, a grim and purposeful little film, positively warps around her radiant vulnerability. Directed by Joseph Ruben from a much flimsier script than his 1987 domestic horror film The Stepfather, Sleeping with the Enemy opens on Laura Burney (Roberts) and her aforementioned rich, violent husband Martin (Patrick Bergin) in their chilly modernist vacation home in Cape Cod. Laura fakes her death to escape his brutal beatings and coercive intimacy, starting a new life under an alias in small-town Iowa; Martin discovers the fraud and tracks her down to the inevitable confrontation. 

The horror of the early scenes is real, partly because Roberts mixes Laura’s raw fear with disgust, boredom, and a granite determination to get out. The cycles of Martin’s abuse are predictable to Laura by now, but no less terrifying to her; we watch her try to keep calm and stave off catastrophe as it begins with obsessive-compulsive towel-straightening, escalates to jealous accusations, and ends with her curled up on the floor. The coda to this nauseating routine is sex to the strains of Martin’s favorite Berlioz CD.

Yet the real horror begins in the second act, when Laura meets Ben (Kevin Anderson), the bearded, floppy-haired drama teacher of Cedar Falls, Iowa. Roger Ebert called Sleeping with the Enemy “a movie that briefly seems to have greatness in its grasp, and goes straight for the mundane,” and I agree; the potential for greatness, in my opinion, lies in the film’s seemingly subconscious depiction of Ben as an abuser-to-be.

Ben is lit like a serial killer, popping up behind Laura at night as she picks his apples, threatening her with arrest and then trying to barter her terror into a date. When she doesn’t take the bait, he follows her to her kitchen door, suggesting she bake him a pie in return for being allowed to come over for a pot-roast dinner, which he promptly burns. Ben’s modus operandi is to unsettle and surprise Laura wherever possible, always keeping her a little off-balance. His idea of a magical first date involves leading her, blindfolded, into the drama department after hours, setting her up on a pitch-black stage, and then watching from the audience as he turns on a spotlight. She fidgets nervously, unsure whether she’s about to be filmed, or possibly murdered; it’s all very romantic. When fake snow starts falling instead of a rain of bullets, the Stockholm syndrome takes full effect and Laura hugs herself, giggling with glee.

But for viewers, the torture has only just begun, as the dream date proceeds to a montage of Laura trying on costume-department hats to “Brown-Eyed Girl.” (I tried to count the hats; I gave up around fifteen.) Even as Roberts tries valiantly to turn this into a scene from one of her bubbly romantic comedies, Ben acts creepier and creepier. He seduces her to the opening lines of “Runaround Sue”—yes, that’s right, a song about sexual jealousy for a survivor of a jealous abuser—and then dances her dizzy, hoisting her into the air and yanking her back and forth like a rag doll. Back at her house, he pushes Laura onto the stairs for a make-out session that looks like hell on the back. Triggered by his sexual aggressiveness, Laura tells him to stop, but eventually has to throw him off.

The film begs us to forgive floppy-haired Ben—Laura always does, of course—even as it places him time and again in Martin’s role. Ben’s sudden, looming presence in Laura’s personal space provides not one, not two, but three jump-scares, which is a lot even for a movie without a cat. The film even aligns Ben with Martin’s mustache-twirling music cue. When Ben asks Laura if she likes classical music, she answers truthfully, “Anything but Berlioz. His Symphonie fantastique gives me chills.” “Thanks for the tip,” Ben leers. At perhaps the climax of the Ben-Martin mind meld, Ben reads to his drama students from Chekhov’s The Seagull as Martin, hot on Laura’s trail, watches hidden in the wings; it’s Treplev’s speech to Nina, professing his undying, obsessive love to her, saying he hates and loves her and begging her to stay. Yet Ben remains the unfired gun of Sleeping with the Enemy’s third act, and in the end, Laura embraces him over Martin’s bloodied body, eager, with every bit of tremulous faith Julia Roberts can muster, to start the cycle anew.

Ever since Fatal Attraction’s stellar first act, domestic thrillers have all had to decide whether to devote time to the “honeymoon period,” whose crucial insights about falling in love with a serial boundary-violator always risk slowing a film down. In cutting this intro in favor of a new meet-cute in the second act, Sleeping with the Enemy comes close, closer than any other domestic abuse thriller I’ve seen, to acknowledging that the aftereffects of trauma go beyond a lifelong aversion to Berlioz. It cozies right up to the hard truth that abusers are everywhere, even Iowa. But in the end it falls back asleep.

This is the third in Amy Gentry’s series about domestic thrillers. She’s the author of the thriller Good as Gone, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in July 2016. Her writing on books and culture has appeared in Electric LiteratureLos 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.