This is the last entry in a series about domestic thrillers.
Obsessed, as they are, with both the trappings and traps of the middle class, most domestic thrillers are invested in interior decoration to a degree that would make Nancy Meyers blush. Part of the joy of watching these films lies in decoding their object fetishes, which tend to come to a head in the final reel, as improvised weapons define each film’s understanding of the terms of domesticity at stake. Consider the menacing household objects that come into play in the films I’ve covered in this series: the shovel in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (fertility!), the nail gun in Pacific Heights (home improvement!), those perfectly straightened cans and towels in Sleeping with the Enemy (housework!). Which is why, on watching Obsessed, the 2009 film starring Idris Elba, Beyoncé Knowles, and Ali Larter, I was at first nonplussed by the aggressive blankness of its sets. What, if anything, is Obsessed obsessed with?
This is an important question, because the future of the domestic thriller is black (or at least nonwhite). While Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, both glossy, self-conscious literary adaptations about downward white mobility, did well, they’ve barely nudged Hollywood’s focus away from teenage-boy-friendly, big-budget action franchises. Meanwhile, Screen Gems, Sony’s small-budget genre subsidiary, has released a black-fronted thriller every September since 2014: No Good Deed, The Perfect Guy, and When the Bough Breaks. Critically reviled, these films nevertheless make healthy returns on their modest budgets while giving actors like Regina Hall, Morris Chestnut, Sanaa Lathan, and Taraji P. Henson something to do that doesn’t involve being a cop, a maid, or someone’s black best friend.
Obsessed was the first, and arguably the whitest, of this subgenre. Featuring a super couple built from the most attractive crossover black star-power of the day—Elba still closely associated with The Wire, Beyoncé fresh off Dreamgirls—with Ali Larter as the unbalanced temp, the film has mainstream hopes written all over it. Moreover, it takes place in a white world. Derek (Elba) is the only black vice president in his investment firm, while Sharon (Beyoncé) only gets help from white neighbors to look after their baby, Kyle. The mise-en-scène around the black family is so muted it’s nearly invisible. Aside from one arty boxing photograph, Derek’s office looks like a Sharper Image catalog, and Sharon spends her time in their new home, drowning in beige and taupe, surrounded by wall art and generic objets that signify precisely nothing. In the final showdown, when the temp Lisa (Larter) reaches for that symbolic weapon to threaten Sharon with, she winds up brandishing a floor lamp so bland that the only words it calls to mind are floor lamp.
It took me a second watch to see that Obsessed is about white-lady tears. Lisa, played by Larter with gleeful acceptance of the part’s incoherence, cries more than she threatens; her most successful weapon is her trembling lower lip (well, that and roofies). Unlike Glenn Close’s complicated character in Fatal Attraction, Lisa has no backstory, no revenge motive, nothing but the delusion of the inevitability of her romance with Derek. Her first successful coup comes in the form of a weepy episode in the company break room that attracts Derek’s clumsy attempt at chin-uppism and justifies, for Lisa, all that is to come. In place of Fatal Attraction’s classic bunny-boiler plot point, Lisa plants her own nearly dead body in Derek’s bed, naked and in dire need of a stomach pump. Through it all, Derek remains utterly incorruptible, his only sin thinking he can handle the problem on his own.
All this tiptoeing around Derek’s potential culpability makes Elba’s half of the film insufferably anodyne, of course, like the deliberate blankness of the set. But it wasn’t enough to keep mainstream critics from seeing the film in racial terms. Bizarrely, the New York Times review chided the film for “the physical resemblance between Mr. Elba and Ms. Larter to O. J. and Nicole Brown Simpson” which, according to Stephen Holden, lent the film “a distasteful taint of exploitation.” It would be hard to imagine a more embarrassing comparison—remember, this is 2009, well before O.J. took over prestige television conversations—or one that says more about what white audiences were and were not willing to see in a leading man who looks like Elba. Lest you think this a fluke, five years later, a reviewer for RogerEbert.com would hint that Screen Gems pulled promotion for No Good Deed (also starring Elba) not as a publicity stunt to help hype the film’s twist ending, as the studio more or less claimed, but to avoid evoking the Ray Rice domestic abuse case.
Process that for a moment: Elba plays a nice guy in one film, a murderous felon in the other, but neither character is a professional athlete, and there’s only one thing either has in common with Simpson and Rice. The casual way in which these gut-wrenching news stories of domestic violence become placeholders for longstanding white fears of black masculinity—fears once used to justify lynchings, now used to justify police brutality—points to the fact that no matter how assimilationist the narrative, many white Americans are simply not ready to see the black middle class on a big screen. Which is as good an argument as any for a new wave of domestic thrillers starring black families.
But first the white woman, that porcelain face of the domestic thriller, forever trying to make the story about her, must be purged from the picture. This is where casting Beyoncé—a slightly wooden good girl who turns on a dime into glowing, ferocious Sasha Fierce—is brilliant. In fact, it’s her character Sharon, not Lisa, who gets all the best weapons in the final showdown. Sharon starts the fight out right by being better dressed, and soon proves herself better able to navigate a treacherous attic in sky-high heels than Lisa can in bare feet. As Lisa falls through the ceiling, she clings for a moment to the chandelier, a massive cluster of quivering crystal teardrops that weep and shatter onto the glass tabletop below. Eventually, in a visceral demonstration of white fragility, Lisa follows suit. Only then does Sharon allow herself a good cry.
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.